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For women and children, a double plague: Coronavirus and domestic violence



Shut inside their one-room house in rural El Salvador, he began drinking heavily. Soon, she says, he was regularly violating the coronavirus curfew and seeing other women openly. He would return home at odd hours, wake her and demand meals. Drunk, he would taunt Zoila, 24 years old and pregnant, calling her worthless and threatening violence.

Then one morning, she says, he grabbed her by the throat, slammed her against the wall and attempted to rape her. When she resisted, she said, the punching began, stopping only when fluid began trailing down her leg. Zoila screamed, fearing a miscarriage.

“I remember that day, and I just want to cry,” said Zoila, who gave birth to a daughter in June. To protect their identities, The Washington Post is using only the first names of Zoila and Sandly, another woman who says she has been abused during the pandemic.

“I was pregnant,” Zoila said. “During what was supposed to be a time of joy for me, I felt only pain.”

For untold numbers of women and children around the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a twofold threat: The risk of catching a deadly virus coupled with the peril of being locked in confined spaces with increasingly violent abusers.

Official statistics are mixed. In some countries, reports of abuse have risen during the pandemic; in others, including the United States, they’ve fallen. But people who work with victims say that in countries seeing fewer complaints, the numbers mask a darker reality. The closure of schools and day-care centers means teachers and social workers have been unable to identify and report abuse. A growing body of evidence suggests incidents of domestic violence are rising as families struggle with restrictions on movement and mounting economic hardship.

Countries rich and poor have shown growing signs of a surge in domestic violence. Fifty-four percent of vulnerable women surveyed by CARE in Lebanon reported an increase in violence and harassment during the pandemic; 44 percent said they felt less safe at home.

In China’s Hubei province, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled during the lockdown there in February. Then-French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said reports of domestic violence jumped by more than 30 percent within the first two weeks of the country’s lockdown. The Catalan regional government in Spain reported a 20 percent increase in calls to its helpline in the first few days of its confinement order, according to UNICEF.

There is precedent for increased abuse during health crises. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, researchers with UNICEF and major charities found, violence against children, rapes and teenage pregnancies all spiked.

“Sometimes, reported abuse cases are falling dramatically and you would think that violence is going down, but it’s just the opposite,” said Christina Wegs, the global advocacy director for sexual and reproductive health and rights for CARE. “The drop is reflecting that women and vulnerable people are not able to report what’s happening.

“You see this in times of crisis. Abuse goes up as there are incredible strains on families and people are confined together without choice.”

The Post was unable to confirm individual accounts of abuse independently. The women who spoke to The Post for this article also shared their stories with organizations that work with victims.

The data is particularly troubling in Latin America.

In Colombia, intrafamily violence against women ages 29 to 59 spiked 94 percent between March and May, a study showed. Officials in Paraguay received reports of at least 80 abuse cases a day in March, a 35 percent jump from the same month a year earlier.

In the Venezuelan state of T├íchira, local officials responded to 840 cases of abuse from March through May, up from 150 cases during the same period a year earlier. In Buenos Aires, calls to an emergency hotline for abuse cases spiked 48 percent from March through June year over year.

Some young victims, unable to access teachers or counselors while locked down, have sought new ways to find help.

Sara Barni, head of Red Viva, an anti-abuse organization in Buenos Aires, was going through the group’s Facebook messages when she spotted what she called an “SOS” from a 14-year-old boy.

“We didn’t used to get calls for help like this,” she said. “But we’re seeing it happen more during the quarantine.”

She reviewed videos and audio recordings sent by the boy. He could be heard screaming as an uncle physically and verbally abused him and sexually abused his younger sister.

“He sent me a video, a very short one, showing how his uncle touched his 5-year-old sister,” Barni said. “It was sickening.”

She contacted Argentine authorities, she said, and several days later police found the boy and his two sisters and removed them from the abusive home.

“I couldn’t believe how brave and quick-thinking this young boy was,” she said. “I am sure that once this lockdown is over, we will discover there was a dark side to this pandemic.”

The stress and close quarters produced by the pandemic can be a trigger for aggression.

Sandly, a 45-year-old school principal in Venezuela, said she endured years of violence from her husband early in their marriage. But five years had passed since he last struck her, and she had begun to think they had turned a corner.

“I think he was trying to change,” she said.

Then the novel coronavirus hit the region. She tested positive and was forced into official quarantine at a hotel, leaving her husband to care for their 8-year-old granddaughter at home. He grew resentful, she said.

“He started texting me, sounding more violent,” she said. “He went from not doing anything in the house to being the one in charge of food, cleaning, cooking. He kept blaming me for what happened, saying he was not meant to do that kind of work. He said it was all my fault.”

When she returned home from quarantine, she said, the apparent self-control he had shown over the past five years had vanished. At first, she said, it was words: He would threaten to kill her. By June, she said, she was receiving regular beatings. At one point, he towered over her with a machete, threatening to hack her, according to a copy of the official complaint she lodged with the prosecutor’s office.

She grew more afraid when she started finding him sitting in the dark, brooding, staring at her with menace as she moved around the room.

She packed what she could into two knapsacks emblazoned with the Venezuelan flag. She took her granddaughter’s hand and slipped out of the house while he was not there, fleeing to a safe house set up by a charity.

“I closed the door behind me,” she said. “I never looked back.”

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