Keeping safe from domestic violence during quarantine: tips from Larysa Denysenko, human rights defender

May 18, 2020

Photo credits: Ksenia Kravtsova and Vladyslav Nechyporenko / UNDP Ukraine

What can you do when it’s not safe to go outside because of the virus, and not safe at home because of an abuser?

While talking about the new challenges associated with quarantine due to the pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, UN chief António Guterres underlined that the numbers of women and girls facing abuse, in almost all countries, has dramatically increased during the lockdown.

Calling for measures against domestic violence, he urged all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.

The Human Rights Committee of the United Kingdom, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence of the United States say that during the lockdown domestic violence significantly increased, because the home – the place that should be the safest place during the pandemic – is often a place where the threat of violence looms. Statistics from China demonstrate that the number of cases of domestic violence in February 2020 was three times more comparing to February 2019.

According to various sources, the number of calls about domestic violence during the lockdown in  countries such as Italy, France, Germany, and the UK spiked by as much as 30-40 percent. In Ukraine there has also been a significant increase in domestic violence – according to the La Strada civil society organization, in March their hotlines received about 1,600 call about domestic violence. In comparison, the last peak of calls before the quarantine was during the New Year festive season, at 1,100 calls.  

In Ukraine during the first three month of this year, the National Police recorded 55,325 reports of domestic violence.

During the same period last year there were 34,091 recorded cases of domestic violence.

Lockdown means more dependency and less access to a phone – or a situation in which you don’t have a chance to call. There is an increase of psychological and economic pressure, and physical and sexual assault. For example, the Los Angeles Times has reported about “coronavirus threats” or cases of blocked access to healthcare. Since domestic violence takes similar forms the world over, such scenarios could easily be repeated in Ukraine.

What can the government, police, healthcare providers, activists, as well as women and girls under the threat of domestic violence do to tackle it, and what international best practices can Ukraine adopt? 

First of all, it has to be ensured that all hotlines are operating during the quarantine. Let me remind you the phone numbers of some of them: 116123 – the La Strada hotline, and 15-47 – the 24-hour government hotline for people under the threat of domestic violence. All phone calls from mobile phones and land lines are free, anonymous, and confidential. And of course, you can call the police – 102.

The National Police and the Ministry of Internal Affairs claim that the police react to such call, they file reports, and issue emergency prohibition orders. To those that have faced domestic violence, the police cannot excuse inaction by saying that the abuser has to stay at home because of the lockdown. The safety of the survivor of domestic violence is the first priority.

It is extremely important that during lockdown the local authorities, social services, and the police pay special attention to the domestic violence calls. In the United States, each of them provide access to all kind of services for women to protect them from abusers.  

Another issue is the lack of shelters for women. Without them it is unclear where a person facing humiliation, physical or mental abuse, or rape at home should go during the quarantine, while following the rules of physical distancing. If the state doesn’t react, and the police doesn’t have clear instructions, how should one know how to act in an emergency case?

What should be done? New safe places for women and girls during lockdown should be set up. For example, in the United States, the social services, local authorities, and the police not only send survivors of domestic violence to shelters, but also provide them with hotel vouchers. I believe this could be a great example of cooperation between the hotel businesses and local government in Ukraine.

I think we should follow the example of the United States and quickly adopt legislation to protect the rights of survivors of domestic violence, specifically, under conditions of quarantine judges should be able to quickly issue restraining orders and to temporary remove the abuser from the home at the request of the police using a simplified procedure.

One could go further, and engage innovative technologies to tackle domestic violence, as other countries do.  

Specifically, in Spain there is an immediate messaging service with a geolocation function, and an online messenger which provides immediate psychological support to survivors of domestic violence. The Ukrainian authorities have stated that digitalization is one of their key priorities. While the emergency situation provides conditions in which the security agencies gain wider access to the personal data of citizens, this should not be used to undermine democracy, but to tackle domestic violence.    

The article is part of the “Just Like You” initiative. On Human Rights Day on 9 December 2019, UNDP launched the “Just Like You” photo exhibition in Kyiv. It tells the stories of 10 Ukrainians who took up the challenge of protecting human rights. “Just Like You” is a joint initiative of Real Stories Production and “Human Rights For Ukraine” project, which is being implemented by UNDP in Ukraine and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.