Understanding the link between pandemics and intimate partner violence
portrait of Jennifer Hardesty
Jennifer Hardesty, professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
June 9, 2020

URBANA, Ill. - While individuals have been encouraged to stay home to protect themselves and others against the spread of coronavirus, for those at risk of experiencing intimate partner violence—or domestic violence—home may not be the safest place during the pandemic.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a significant public health issue that impacts millions of individuals globally. Jennifer Hardesty, professor of human development and family studies in the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, studies intimate partner violence, and says there has been an increase in reports of such violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hardesty discusses possible links between pandemics and increases in intimate partner violence, as well as resources where victims can find support.

What factors related to the pandemic increase the risk for incidences of intimate partner violence?

We are seeing increased reports of such violence now with COVID-19 in the United States and other countries. The mechanisms that link pandemics with heightened violence, particularly against women and children, are numerous and complex.

Generally, the pandemic creates a great deal of economic uncertainty, unrest, fear, and stress. There are a lot of unknowns. Coupled with being home together all the time, even the healthiest of relationships will experience conflict and tension. In relationships with IPV, these circumstances are likely to exacerbate an already volatile situation. Heightened risk of domestic homicide is of great concern, especially with job losses among men which is a known risk factor for homicide of women in abusive relationships.    

How does IPV look different during the pandemic?

Abusers can use the pandemic and stay-at-home orders as tactics of control. For example, they can use guidelines for social distancing to further isolate their partners from having contact with family, friends, or coworkers—or even their children if partners are separated but share custody. Increased time together gives more opportunity for abusers to monitor their partner’s activities, including their work activities if they have virtual meetings from home. Victims of abuse may have no break from their abuser during this time.

As we have seen with health issues, abusers also can control women’s ability to protect themselves by denying or limiting their access to protective equipment, such as masks, or preventing them from seeking medical care if sick. This is particularly concerning for victims who are people of color. People of color are at greater risk of and are more likely to die from COVID-19. Abusers may prevent victims from connecting with important supports while simultaneously making them be the ones to leave the home with the children to run errands without proper protection and when businesses may be restricting children’s access.

If abusers control information, they can misrepresent the risks to justify extreme isolation or minimize risks and place their partners at risk. During this time, women who are abused may feel especially “stuck” in their relationships. Physical and mental health care providers are less immediately accessible, financial strain and fears of getting sick may limit the ability to leave, and access to legal systems may be limited or delayed. Given the systemic racism and violence against communities of color at the hands of police and other law enforcement, women of color may not want to call the police for help. Privacy is also restricted so it can be challenging to seek help without the abuser’s knowledge.

If someone is experiencing intimate partner violence, inside or outside of the pandemic, what resources are available to help?

The National Domestic Violence Abuse Hotline is an important resource available 24/7. Callers can talk with an advocate, who can help with safety planning and identifying local resources (1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY). If calls are not safe, individuals can visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. Victims can also call their local domestic violence shelter to talk with an advocate. Callers do not have to be seeking shelter to call for information, support, and resources. In the event of life threatening danger, call 911. As we spend more time together at home, it is important to also teach children how to call 911 or how to safely escape to a neighbor if necessary. For more on safety planning, visit https://www.thehotline.org/help/path-to-safety/.

Hardesty and colleague Brian Ogolsky, also a professor of human development and family studies at U of I, outline a decade of research on intimate partner violence in a recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Learn more from Hardesty and Ogolsky on intimate partner violence in a recent interview with Illinois News Bureau.