10-Minute Talks: Domestic and sexual violence during COVID-19

by Professor Joanna Bourke FBA

11 Nov 2020

Worried woman sitting on floor next to bed.

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Professor Joanna Bourke FBA outlines how the pandemic has exacerbated, not created, the problem of domestic and sexual violence in our society.


Hello, I'm Joanna Bourke. I'm Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London and a Fellow of the British Academy. I'm also the principal investigator of the SHaME project, that is, SHaME stands for Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters and this is what I want to talk to you about today. I want to talk about domestic violence during COVID-19.

Pandemics are, of course, stark reminders of human vulnerability. Now of course, at the most fundamental level, we are all vulnerable. Sentience involves suffering; death is a certainty in life. However, pandemics, like armed conflicts and other calamities, force us to acknowledge our fleshly finitude. To be vulnerable, from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound, is to be open to injury. In this brief talk, I'm going to be focusing on vulnerability to domestic violence in the midst of the current pandemic. This form of vulnerability is always interpersonal.

The possession of specific traits, characteristics or identities, do not automatically make people more or less vulnerable.

People are made vulnerable by a complex mix of ideological, economic, political and spatial systems, which construct and maintain hierarchies of power. Vulnerable people, in other words, are rendered woundable by someone. They are denied the humanity, the personhood, upon which recognition is based.

Throughout the world, levels of domestic violence have skyrocketed since this pandemic. According to the World Health Organisation, there has been a 60 per cent rise in emergency calls concerning domestic violence in the EU since the pandemic started. Vulnerability to domestic violence is unevenly distributed. Girls and women, residents in care homes, refugees and undocumented migrants, people with physical or learning difficulties and members of ethnic, racial, social, religious, or sexual minorities are more vulnerable to domestic abuse than others.

Seeking help is very difficult for victimised women and people from other minoritised communities. For many, leaving the family home is simply not an option, because of financial dependency, lack of access to divorce and feelings of shame. The curtailment of social activities has also meant that vulnerable people have lost the support of friends and family members. Instead, they're often required to share limited domestic space with their aggressors. Scarce health resources has meant that medical attention has been diverted from familial violence into tackling this deadly infection.

Many places where abused women can seek refuge are overstretched and under-resourced. This was the case prior to the pandemic and, of course, the pandemic has meant they have reached breaking point. Many victims have refrained from reporting their abuse to the police or from visiting health facilities due to fears of exposing themselves to the dreaded disease, or due to an attempt not to strain already overstretched health systems.

In the UK, sexual assault referral centres have seen a 50 per cent reduction in the number of referrals for forensic examinations in the first six weeks of the lockdown. In those cases where a face-to-face interview is held, something which of course is only allowed in the most serious cases of domestic violence, doctors complain that wearing a mask changes patient-doctor relationships. Establishing trust, showing empathy, has become actually a lot more difficult.

Aggressive men also typically have used the fear of the virus as a weapon in their arsenal of abuse. In other words, they have ramped up controlling mechanisms. Perpetrators have told their families that they are infected with the virus and therefore cannot leave the home. Others actually have invited people into their home, telling their wives that the visitor has COVID-19 and is going to infect them unless they submit to certain conditions. Perpetrators may ban or limit hand washing and they routinely impose restrictions on social media or the internet.

In households with abusive men, children are in an especially vulnerable position, especially when schools, camps, youth and sports clubs, faith-based societies, are closed. Around one fifth of all reports of abuse and neglect of children are made by educational personnel. This makes teachers the primary reporters of abuse. Combined with restricted access to members of the extended family, particularly grandparents, the closure of schools has greatly reduced opportunities for children to make their mistreatment known. As bored children turn to online platforms, the opportunities for offenders to abuse them actually increases.

Now, getting help can be difficult for adults as well as children. Internet connection problems, especially in rural areas, or where there is low coverage, is a serious problem. Many low-income people cannot afford the computing technologies and of course, elderly people may not be familiar with these technologies.

Finally, the stories of intimate partner violence can be resisted. In other words, I think it's important not to reduce victims to spectres of vulnerability.

Girls and women exposed to higher levels of abuse during the pandemic are more than just victims.

Domestic violence exposes a person's dependency to known others, with whom the woman might have also experienced affection, even love in the past. By focusing on domestic violence, we must not elude all other aspects of a subject's identity, including the ongoing ways that she expresses agency and contests injustices. Crucially, in other words, it doesn't have to be this way.

The pandemic has exacerbated, not created the problem of sexual and domestic violence in our society. The violence experienced by girls, women and other minoritised groups, during pandemics or other disasters, did not exist or do not exist outside of broader societal practices, ideologies and power struggles. After all, in so-called normal times, one in three women will experience sexual or other violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

This is why any reduction of domestic and sexual violence will require the political, ideological and discursive labour of every global citizen. However we are situated: scholars, teachers, medical or legal experts, parents, journalists, labourers, or whatever, we have a duty of care to ourselves, our families and our loved ones, neighbours, friends and acquaintances. It is needed more than ever in these times.

This talk originally took place on 11 November 2020, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

"Why is rape so difficult for some people to understand?" article by Joanna Bourke for The Guardian.

Joanna Bourke for The Times Higher Education.

"A global history of sexual violence by Professor Joanna Bourke", video for Newcastle University.

An Intimate History Of Killing, Joanna Bourke.

Dismembering the Male, Joanna Bourke.

Lead image: Worried woman sitting on floor next to bed. © valentinrussanov via Getty Images.

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