Fragile Resources Overwhelmed

After her husband attacked her with the high chair, Lele limped to the next room and called the police. When they arrived, however, they only documented the attack, then took no further action.

Next, she hired a lawyer and filed for divorce — only to find that the epidemic had cut off that avenue of escape, too. Her divorce proceeding was postponed until April. She is still waiting for the court’s decision.

And finding a new home amid the outbreak proved difficult, forcing Lele and her daughter to continue to live with their abuser for weeks.

It is a pattern playing out around the world.

Institutions that are supposed to protect women from domestic violence, many weak and underfunded to begin with, are now straining to respond to the increased demand.

Feng Yuan, a co-founder of Equality, the Chinese advocacy group, said she had one client who called an emergency line only to be told the police were too overstretched to help her. “We can come to your place after the crisis,” she recounted the operator saying.

In Europe, one country after another seems to have followed the same grim path: First, governments impose lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic abuse victims. About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions.



Italy was first.

Its lockdown began in early March. Soon after that, domestic violence reports began to rise, but there was nowhere for newly desperate women to go. Shelters could not take them because the risk of infection was too great.

So the government said local authorities could requisition hotel rooms to serve as makeshift shelters where victims could quarantine safely.

Spain announced its lockdown on March 14; France’s began three days later. About two weeks later, with abuse reports soaring, officials there announced that they, too, planned to turn vacant hotel rooms into shelters, among other emergency efforts.

In Britain, the authorities waited longer before imposing a lockdown.

Ten days before it began on March 23, The New York Times contacted the Home Office about what it planned to do about domestic violence. The response: Only “existing sources of advice and support” would be available. The government later published a list of hotlines and apps that victims could use to call for help, but only one was specifically tailored for the Covid-19 crisis.

By a week into lockdown, Avon and Somerset, in the southwest of the country, said domestic abuse reports were already up by 20 percent, and local forces elsewhere were bracing for the same. Last week, after dozens of civic groups signed an open letter to the government calling for action, officials pledged to respond, without offering specifics. “Supporting victims of domestic abuse is a priority for the home secretary, and she is fully aware of the distress and anxiety this period may cause to those suffering or at risk of domestic abuse,” the Home Office said in a statement. “We are working with the police, domestic abuse charities, help lines and front-line workers to support and protect people,.” It also said victims could “disregard orders to stay at home if they need to seek immediate refuge.” Eventually, the lockdowns will end. But as the confinement drags on, the danger seems likely to intensify. Studies show that abusers are more likely to murder their partners and others in the wake of personal crises, including lost jobs or major financial setbacks. With Covid-19 ravaging the economy, such crises are set to become much more frequent.

Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Spain, Vivian Wang from Hong Kong, Constant Méheut from France and Elisabetta Povoledo from Italy.


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