Home is not a safe haven: Domestic violence in the context of COVID-19 self-isolation

I stopped dead in my tracks when my partner showed me an NPR article entitled “Don’t Nag Your Husband During Lockdown” (NPR April 2020). The Malaysian government COVID-19 related public campaign was also advising women to wear make-up and office clothes while working from home so as not to offend their husbands.

On March 18, 2020 the Malaysian government granted permission to male heads of households only to leave the home during the COVID-19 lockdown. This directive meant that men would also have to do the grocery shopping. Facebook and twitter postings began offering advice as well urging men to ensure their cell phones were fully charged before executing this duty so they could call home to get help while shopping. Grocery store chain Tesco Malaysia published a how to guide for men. Unsurprisingly there was outrage among many including this post:

“How did we go from preventing baby dumping, fighting domestic violence to some variant of the Obedient Wives Club?” wrote @yinshaoloong.

The outrage led to the withdrawal of this campaign by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community. But what this campaign did was draw attention to gender relations in the household and the potential for domestic violence, an issue that requires much more attention and consideration in the era of lockdowns and social isolation.

On average, 1 in 3 women in the world experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime (WHO 2014). In Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police in one county more than tripled in February rising from 47 reports the previous year to 162 this year (The Guardian, March 28, 2020). In Brazil, a Rio de Janeiro judge specializing in domestic violence cases reported, “We think there has been a rise of 40% or 50%, and there was already really big demand,” (The Guardian, March 28, 2020). In the USA reports of decreased crime rates in major cities were accompanied by increases in reports of domestic violence. In Seattle police reported a 22% increase in the first 2 weeks of March (Bloomberg March 20, 2020). Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director UN Women stated that:

“the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.” (TIME March 18, 2020)

  • The current crisis makes it more difficult for individuals in abusive households to seek help or even temporarily escape their abuser by going to work or school. Furthermore, fears of the virus keep them from going out. Women don’t want to seek shelter with their parents for fear of infecting their elderly loved ones. Abusers feel a greater sense of loss of power and control and are more likely to take their frustrations out on individuals closest to them, their partners, children and even parents.
  • Economic losses and increased impoverishment intensifies tensions in the family which can lead to increases in domestic violence. This is a crisis for women, families and communities in the wake of business shutdowns during the COVID-19 response globally. Impoverishment can also result in increases in transactional sex in exchange for food or other resources. This puts women, girls and other marginalized individuals at increased risk of HIV acquisition. Increased rates of child marriage and sex trafficking are also reported.
  • Disasters also result in displacement of people which can increase GBV especially when it is a protracted period of displacement. Currently there are massive displacements of people taking place in India. Separation of families and collapse of social networks places people in vulnerable situation. Women who rely on neighbors for support may lose these support networks when displaced. Single women are often at even greater risk when displaced.
  • The trauma of losing loved ones and caring for sick and injured during health disasters can have a devastating effect on family relationships. Family members have varied experiences based on gender, age, health status, work status, and whether or not they are able bodied. Workloads often increase and women are responsible for keeping the family together.
  • Individuals and organizations responding to a disaster are often unaware of the increase in domestic violence and ill equipped to identify domestic violence and to respond appropriately. Countries rarely have policies and strategies in place for responding to domestic violence in their disaster preparedness and response plans. Emergency responders are often overwhelmed and unable to respond to reports of domestic violence. Where disasters result in restricted movement then women cannot access services including health care. Sometimes the only way to access women at risk of or experiencing domestic violence is through health care.
  • Men’s ability to fulfill normative cultural expectations to protect and provide for family is strained. They may be left in new and unfamiliar roles in caring for children and family members.
Man leaving Delhi feeds his infant as he walks

Promoting agency

Public authorities, social agencies, community-based organizations, and media can play a critical role in preventing and addressing domestic violence by supporting organizations that empower women, girls, and other marginalized groups including:

  • Women’s organizations
  • Youth organizations
  • Community based organizations
  • Media: call in shows; dramas; interviews


  • Consider ways to strengthen local capacity to respond to domestic violence during disasters. Assist communities to prevent and report domestic violence.
  • Increase awareness among first responders (such as police, firefighters, health care workers) of the heightened risk of domestic violence. Train staff and volunteers.
  • Utilize various forms of media, especially the radio, to reach isolated individuals and communities.
  • Assume domestic violence is occurring and likely increasing. Encourage attention to domestic violence and to record reports and evidence of potential domestic violence risk and occurrence.
  • Recognize the role of livelihood support to reduce risks associated with impoverishment. Women need to have decision making power in order to seek an escape from abusers. Providing paid sick leave and pay for unpaid care work is one means of ensuring women have the financial means to mitigate and possibly to escape abuse.
  • Public authorities need to develop policies and strategic plans to reduce likelihood of domestic violence and provide a plan to provide resources and services to victims of domestic violence.
  • Recovery after disasters is a long-term process. Public authorities and social support agencies need to address the long term effects on women and support ongoing efforts to improve economic opportunities, access to resources and healthcare, as well as facilitate a return to stable living arrangements and access to social support networks (whether old or new).