Violence against Women during Covid-19 Pandemic

The following article was published in the December 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.

By Dinorah La Luz Feliciano

In this essay I will show that official statistics are likely to under-report gender violence during times of social disruption and isolation. While several agencies are getting fewer reports of violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, this may simply be due, among other factors, to an increase in unreported cases, in order to counter-balance this blind spot, I will review mental health research that strongly suggests violence is more likely to increase under the stress of isolation and reduced resources.

Violence against Women Statistics

Women’s organizations have identified gender violence in the United States as a major problem  during this pandemic.[1] However, there are few estimates of gender violence in Puerto Rico. In the first phase of the island’s confinement to combat Covid-19 (March 15 to May 6, 2020), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reported 919 cases of gender-related violence  ,[2] compared to 1,046 cases  for (all of)(the same period in) 2019.[3]

During the first month of confinement (March 15th to April 19, 2020), the Puerto Rico Police Department’s official statistics also suggested a decrease in gender violence. They reported 643 cases, compared to 725 cases during the same period in 2019. The decline was reported in most municipalities. [4]  In densely populated metropolitan areas, there  was a slight decrease in violence against women. For example, during this one month period, the capital city of San Juan reported 74 cases in 2020, and 76 cases in 2019. The city of Carolina was an exception, it reported an increase of 5 detected cases.

Limitations to the Public Health Data

In assessing the reliability of these statistics, one must consider factors common to other disasters  on the Island, such as hurricanes:

  1. Calls to the police were not registered because police stations were closed,
  2. The police had new, pressing priorities due to the disaster,
  3. Courts of law were closed.
  4. Women’s shelters were closed, due to physical damage or the loss of operating funds.
  5. Government’s offices were closed, including women’s assistance agencies.
  6. Women lost faith in social systems, due to the disappearance of multiple services.

After hurricane María (September 2017), women’s shelters and NGOs that serve abused women reported an increase in cases. Likewise, the Police Department reported a 6% increase in this type of violence. However, analyses indicated that this was an under-estimate. [6] It should be noted that the above six consequences of natural disasters are also likely to reduce government and NGO services for women at risk during the pandemic.

Psycho-Social Factors in Violence against Women

Restrictions enacted by departments of public health to keep the virus from spreading have affected all relationships. Widespread stresses and collateral consequences of this pandemic have included: continuing spread of severe or fatal illness, loss of work, financial uncertainty, confinement, diminished supportive relationships, failure of governments to prepare, and widespread personal and political disagreements about the right courses of action. All of these factors compound the public health crisis.[7]

Many healthcare professionals have suggested that social distancing during the pandemic amplifies the risk of violence against women confined in their homes.[8] Since gender violence is a psycho-social problem, one must consider not only statistics, but also the personality factors that explain the violence, especially in an already abusive situation. Confinement by the pandemic parallels other well-studied phenomena,[9] including hostage situations, the battered women’s syndrome described by Lenore Walker,[10] and Steven Morgan’s conjugal terrorism theory.[11]

Walker argues that violence tends to escalate when an already violent partner is under stress. She describes how abusive partners typically have cycles of violence, where intimidation, verbal and physical abuse escalate, followed by periods of forgiveness or reconciliation. Stressors such as economic uncertainty and confinement for long periods of time cause the abuser to feel he is losing control, triggering an increase in violence. Walker references the research by Martin Seligman, in which mild electric shocks were given to dogs; some dogs had a switch to turn off the shock and some did not.[12]. Over time, the latter dogs did not try to escape, even after they were freed. They became submissive and passive, in a condition of “learned helplessness.”[13]  Likewise, battered women’s syndrome has been classified as a post-traumatic stress disorder, with intense fear, terror and learned helplessness.[14] [15]

Morgan’s conjugal terrorism theory, argues that women who are battered become hostages of their helplessness and are predisposed to accept their destiny. The aggressor, who has a perception of power and superiority, tries to control the family by using indiscriminate violence. Morgan’s studies on aggression and violence also show that ecological situations of constraint or limited physical space further distort how people relate to each other.

To spell out the likely effects of the pandemic on these dynamics, I interviewed two psychologists, Dr. Noelani Colón-Honda[16] and Dr. John H. Poole.[17] Colón reported that stress often triggers episodes of abuse, and that heightened stress may shorten and intensify the cycle of abuse. Poole reported that a primary intervention in domestic conflicts is to de-escalate  angry confrontations with “time outs ”, providing space and time for emotions to calm. When partners are confined in their homes, this kind of moderation is nearly impossible. He noted that many abusers were victims of abuse and excess punishment in childhood. This history makes them hyper-vigilant of people trying to control them. So, when medical and government authorities decree pandemic restrictions, the abuser is prone to feel he    is being punished all over again, triggering both rebellion against authorities and intensified abuse of their partner.

Conclusions

During the pandemic, victims of gender-related violence have become isolated from the support of agencies, women’s groups, and shelters — with reduced opportunities to report incidents of abuse. To compound the isolation, because the abuser cannot “cool down”, the cycle of violence in abusive relationships is likely to become shorter and more intense, This may even push borderline cases into abuse. Similar to cases of post-traumatic stress, victims are at risk of helplessness due to their absence of resources, and abusers are prone to feel trapped and inflict this on their partner. All of these factors contribute both to an underreporting of cases, and to a likely increase in gender-related violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dinorah La Luz received a Ph. D. in Philosophy (History), a Master of Laws (LL. M.) in Comparative Law, and a Certificate from the Institute of International and Comparative Law in Geneva and Strasbourg. She was a legal translator in the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, and a professor of Human Rights, Constitutional Rights, and Criminology at the university level, and a History and Grammar, Usage, and Writing professor in a film institute. She has been active in non- governmental organizations as a legal consultant, and as an active member of NGOs that have an advisory status at the United Nations, for example, the American Association of Jurists (executive committee), the Latin-American and Caribbean Committee for Women’s Rights (CLADEM), Puerto Rico Chapter (as a joint coordinator), and Amnesty International (legal board), among others. She had the opportunity of doing voluntary work for organizations like the Pro Bono Legal Advocates in San Diego, and locally, in the International Section of the Commission for Constitutional and Human Rights of the Puerto Rico Bar Association (as a Commissioner).

She has participated as an editor of Spanish articles for organizations like the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the American Association of Jurists. Professor La Luz has various publications, to wit, The Case of Puerto Rico under the United Nations Charter, INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY LAW/REVUE INTERNATIONALE DE DROIT CONTEMPORAIN. SPECIAL EDITION ON THE 70TH YEARS OF THE UNITED NATIONS CHARTER. INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF DEMOCRATIC LAWYERS 1 (2), (June 2016): 25- 32; Concerns of Women in Armed Conflict Situations in Latin America, Askin, Kelly D., and Dorean M. Koenig, eds., 3 WOMEN AND INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW 325 (Transnational Pub., 2001), and Mujeres maltratadas: de víctimas a victimarias: aspectos sociales, sicológicos y jurídicos (Battered women who kill: social, psychological and legal aspects), UNIVERSITY OF PUERTO RICO LAW JOURNAL 63 (3) (1994): 679- 728, for which she was awarded a second prize. Her forthcoming publications include, among others, Reparaciones en el sistema interamericano de derechos humanos (Reparations in the Interamerican System of Human Rights), and her bilingual GLOSSARY OF INSURANCE TERMS, in its third edition.

[1] Although, there are other cases where victims can be at risk, like dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, apart from the so called “domestic” violence, this essay will examine only the cases of violence in the home, where there is less space or opportunity to escape. For other cases, see  the U. S. Department of Justice report, which shows that in the United States the effects on victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking is a constant concern in this Covid-19 crisis. [https://www.justice.gov/ovw/blog/pandemic-punctuates-19th-annual-national-sexual-assault-awareness-and-prevention-month] U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Violence Against Women Blog, Pandemic Puncuates 19th Annual National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, Laura L. Rogers, Principal Deputy Director, Office of Violence Against Women, April 20, 2020.

[2] “Más de 900 incidentes de violencia de género en Puerto Rico durante el COVID-19,” EFE News San Juan, May 11, 2020.

[3] Women’s groups like Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres, said that there are serious doubts about these numbers, because cases have increased, according to Vilma González of Coordinadora, íd.

[4] “Siguen en aumento los casos de violencia doméstica”, Metro Puerto Rico, April 20, 2020.

[5] Id.

[6] Claire Tighe & Larren Gurley, “Datos oficiales de violencia contra la mujer en Puerto Rico no son confiables después del huracán María,” Noticel, May 7, 2018, [https://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2018/05/datos-oficiales-de-violencia-contra-la-mujer-en-puerto-rico-no-son-confiables-despes-del-huracan-maria/].

[7] Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide Movement restrictions aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus may be making violence in homes more frequent, more severe and more dangerous,”  The Interpreter, N. Y. Times, April 6, 2020, updated April 14, 2020.

[8] Andrew M. Campbell, “An increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic: Strengthening community collaborations to save lives,” Science Direct Forensic Science International: Reports 2 (2020) 100089, [https://doi.org/10.1016/J.FSIR.2020.100089].

[9] You have other theories like, for example, Dutton and Painter’s traumatic bonding (Donald G. Dutton & Susan L. Painter, “Traumatic Bonding: The Development of Emotional Attachments in Battered Women and Other Relationships of Intermittent Abuse,” 6 Victimology, Nos. 1-4, 139-155 (1981); or, Graham & Rawlings, “Stockholm Syndrome,” U.P.I., Feb. 20, 1991. See, also, the discussion of these theories as they relate to women who kill in Dinorah La Luz- Feliciano, “Mujeres maltratadas: de víctimas a victimarias- aspectos sociales, sicológicos y jurídicos,”63 (3) Rev. Jur. U.P.R. 679- 728 (1994).

[10] Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman, N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1979.

[11] Steven Morgan, Conjugal Terrorism: A Psychological and Community Treatment Model of Wife Abuse, Palo Alto, Calif.: R & E Research Associates (1982), at 22-30.

[12] Martin Seligman “Learned helplessness”. Ann. Rev. Med. 23:407–412 (1972) [doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203]. Reference provided by Dr. John Poole.

[13] Id., at 45-46.

[14] During this pandemic, psychologists are indicating that people are feeling helpless, anxious, and have similar symptoms of “cabin fever”, where people do not want to leave their homes because they perceive they could be in danger (actual danger or not.) Marie Hartwell- Walker, Coping with Cabin Fever, Psych Central, April 9, 2020 [https://psychcentral.com/lib/coping-with-cabin-fever/].

[15] Walker, supra, at 42 et seq.

[16] Noelani Colón-Honda Ph.D., telephone interview, August 16, 2020. Dr Colón is an I/O psychologist at the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus. In Dr. Colón’s opinion the cycle of domestic violence would probably shorten during confinement, and clinical studies are needed to back this conclusion.

[17] John H. Poole, M.S., Ph.D., telephone interview, August 17, 2020. Dr. Poole is a neuropsychology researcher and clinician, formerly at the U.S. Department of Veterans Heath Care System and the University of California San Francisco, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders and trauma, including from war and sexual abuse.