COVID-19 and Intimate Partner Violence: We Don’t Need More Data, We Need Services

Image of two people holding hands.

The relationship between intimate partner violence (IPV) against women and health crises has received unprecedented attention of late. Many countries and regions around the globe have seen an increase in reporting of IPV to authorities and frontline workers following implementation of COVID-19-related movement restrictions. In other settings with similar movement restrictions, the number of IPV cases being reported through service delivery channels has decreased.

For example, in Europe the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports a 60% increase in calls from women seeking help against abusive partners since lockdown measures were imposed. In Singapore, IPV related calls have surged by 33%; at the other end of the world, in Argentina, there has been a 25% increase in IPV-related emergency calls. This list goes on to include: Australia, Belgium, China, El Salvador, Kenya, Kosovo, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Spain, Thailand, Tunisia, and Italy.  The Economist’s review of data from five large US cities found that overall crime fell by 25% in the first few weeks after lockdown, but IPV rose by 5%.

On the other hand, Denmark’s national IPV hotline reported a drop of 15% in calls in the first weeks after lockdown, whilst calls from people looking for emergency shelter went up. IRC’s analysis of its GBV case management data found a 50% decrease in women and girls reaching out for services in Bangladesh, and a 30% decrease in Tanzania. 

The varying patterns of IPV reports has prompted widespread discussion in the media and elsewhere about what the data is telling us. In settings where help-seeking has increased, some wonder whether what we are witnessing is an actual increase in violence, or rather an increase in reporting? Some argue that the increased number of reported cases may indicate that too broad a brush is being used to define who is a perpetrator given that the unique circumstances cause people to behave in unusual ways that may not constitute ‘violence.’ In settings where reports of violence have decreased, it has been posited by some that this may be a reflection of lack of access or availability of services, while others wonder if overall violence has, in fact, decreased.

As humanitarians who have struggled to get IPV the attention it deserves in crisis-affected settings, the preoccupation with data, and with what it does or does not say, is an all-too-familiar tactic to dismiss, deflect or silence women’s rights activists and others calling for funding and services to prevent and respond to violence against women in humanitarian contexts. We already know from epidemics such as the Ebola and Zika that violence against women, including IPV, rises during and in the aftermath of crises. We also know that IPV is exceedingly difficult to measure at the best of times.  Over-emphasizing the value and importance of incident data can mean that data collection is prioritized over women’s safety. Furthermore, turning to service-delivery statistics as an indicator of prevalence is never reliable. Calls to hotlines and other service data can be a helpful guide to understand help-seeking patterns and behaviours, but given that IPV is severely under-reported  even in stable conditions, service-delivery data is a poor proxy for incidence. 

In any case, neither increases nor  decreases in reporting of IPV is surprising in the context of COVID-19. Each reaffirms what research and experience already tell us about health-related crises and triggers of IPV. Economic insecurity, quarantines and self-isolation, disaster-related instability, exposure to exploitative and abusive relationships during isolation measures, reduced access and availability to health services, and exploitation in relief efforts, amongst other factors are widely documented pathways linking IPV to global health crises. Some of these factors are inversely related to the reporting of IPV, which explains the decline in numbers of women seeking help through hotlines and other services during COVID-19. Social isolation measures necessitate constant close proximity to and control by abusers, giving women few chances to report violence of any kind. Lockdowns and curfews also mean women are unable to access information and other resources necessary for leaving an abusive situation. 

Instead of focusing attention to what the data do or do not tell us, the more important question during these unprecedented times is: what is the best way to help women experiencing violence during a pandemic? By focusing on this question, we can reinforce priorities in data collection in crisis, particularly qualitative inquiry with women and girls in order to ensure their lived experiences and testimonies inform adjustments to and innovations in service delivery. Only in this way can we use data to truly help women and girls in need. 

 A number of countries around the world have taken action to meet the changing needs of survivors and those at risk.  The Government of France, for example, launched a scheme whereby women can use code words at pharmacies to signal for help. In other measures, the Government of France is providing funding to place  victims of IPV in hotels and support pop-up counseling centers in supermarkets. In Spain, the Government launched counseling services through Whatsapp to make it easier for survivors to reach out for help without putting them at risk.

These initiatives illustrate the importance of adjusting services in times of crises in order to better meet the needs of survivors. It is past time for a preoccupation with data, or for engaging in arguments about what the data tell us about the scope of IPV or other forms of violence against women and girls. It’s time to focus our energies on collecting and using data to create real and lasting change in order to more effectively provide assistance to survivors and end the global pandemic of violence against women and girls.

This blog post was written by a COFEM member who wishes to remain anonymous.