Danger behind closed doors

Domestic abuse call lines have been inundated during lockdown. It’s time to eradicate violence in our communities once and for all, argues Frances Fitzgerald.
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By Frances Fitzgerald

23 Jun 2020

Shocking as it may sound, no country in the world has yet managed to eradicate domestic violence. The terror continues for people around the world, mostly women and children, but also men.

In recent months due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the numbers are once again on the rise. Behind closed doors, in households across Europe, women are locked into their homes with their abusers, unable to escape, leave or even raise the alarm.

Danger is lurking in many homes as the COVID-19-induced lockdown continues. Across Europe, governments have poured every resource into fighting the Coronavirus, attempting to ready unprepared health systems, mobilising every contact to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and communicating unrelentingly, with their populations about the need to stay home and stay safe.


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Unfortunately, staying at home does not mean staying safe when locked up with an abuser. Domestic violence call lines were suddenly inundated, police reports increased and, tragically, cases of women murdered in their homes played out across the media.

Figures from the UK showed that the first three weeks of lockdown saw the highest number of killings of women of any 21-day period in the past decade. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been exacerbated by the undue stress and strain of existing in a small space, alone, for a long period of time.

However, this sudden spike in the number of cases is most alarming. To make matters worse, constant close confinement with an abuser makes it much harder for victims of domestic violence to reach out for support.

“I have been heartened to see that governments, NGOs and communities across Europe, and the world, have taken immediate, and often highly innovative, action to ensure that victims can access support during this difficult period”

Traditional forms of support, such as drop-in centres have noted that the number of victims seeking help has fallen. When it comes to domestic violence we must have one goal: total eradication. To see numbers rise over recent weeks has been nothing short of horrifying.

As such, I, and a number of my EPP Group colleagues in the European Parliament, sent a letter to the Council and Commission some weeks ago, urging action on domestic violence including ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the need for a Directive to tackle gender-based violence.

However, legislative action must be accompanied by resources and on the ground support.

I have been heartened to see that governments, NGOs and communities across Europe and the world, have taken immediate, and often highly innovative, action to ensure that victims can access support during this difficult period.

My own country, Ireland, has the ‘Still Here’ campaign, reminding people to be vigilant towards domestic violence, while other countries across Europe have taken innovative approaches.

In Italy, Spain, France and Germany, for example, the code word “Mask-19” has been introduced in pharmacies. Should a victim present themselves using that code word, pharmacy staff know that they are in danger and will contact the police.

Here in Brussels, a particular hotel has been requisitioned by the authorities to house victims of domestic violence who cannot return home.

“Domestic violence cannot be stopped by apps and signals; rather these are methods that we use to help victims when violence is already underway”

One of the Parliament’s buildings was also temporarily converted into a shelter for victims. Meanwhile in Denmark, new shelters have been opened to allow more emergency accommodation for women seeking help.

In Italy and France a new app was launched that allows victims to raise the alarm about domestic abuse without alerting their partner, by sending pictures which then self-delete.

To make it easier to flee domestic violence, victims in Ireland, Italy and Spain are permitted to leave the limited movement zone.

In addition, in a unique and highly welcome move, Germany has also opened a hotline for male victims of domestic violence and abuse.

As Minister for Justice in Ireland, I brought in emergency barring orders allowing a court to prohibit an abuser from entering their home for a period of several days.

Now in Trento, Italy, a judge ruled that in situations of domestic violence, the abuser must leave the home. Austria has also provided for the removal of violent family members from the home.

While these measures are not automatically law, the precedents are important steps in protecting victims.

Finally, France has organised pop-up counselling services in supermarkets for victims. There are many innovative and positive moves being made by governments to tackle domestic violence, and there is plenty that we can learn about innovative ways to support victims during this difficult time.

However, the most effective ways of tackling domestic and gender-based violence have always been for the general public to be aware and vigilant, and by tackling drug and alcohol addiction.

Domestic violence cannot be stopped by apps and signals; rather these are methods that we use to help victims when violence is already underway.

The vigilance of communities, combined with education and a fundamental understanding from a young age that there is no room for violence in our societies are the only ways to eradicate violence in our communities, once and for all.

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