Domestic violence against women remains one of the world’s most prevalent but least recognized human rights abuses. Globally, more than one-third of women have faced domestic violence, and 137 are killed by their domestic partners every day. Since the start of COVID-19, the United Nations (UN) has reported an increase in domestic violence, in part because of prolonged lockdowns.
The UN agency for sexual and reproductive health predicts 31 million new cases of domestic violence worldwide if the lockdowns continue for another six months. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) director for Europe, Hans Kluge, stated that in April this year there was a 60% increase in distressed calls from female victims of domestic violence compared to the same period last year. What actions, then, could policymakers take to address this problem during the pandemic and beyond?
Effective regulation of alcohol consumption
According to the WHO, there is a strong link between alcohol consumption and incidences of domestic violence. One study found that in the United States, alcohol was consumed prior to 55% of domestic abuse cases. Additionally, the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence found that substance abuse including alcohol was present in more than 92% of the domestic violence incidents reported. The problem tends to be more severe for teenagers because of their lower tolerance to alcohol. The WHO has also found that alcohol consumption increases the odds of someone committing a crime in general. This is because alcohol affects impulse control, which in turn undermines non-violent conflict resolution.
Proper implementation of alcohol management regulations could therefore help reduce cases of domestic violence. In Australia, for example, researchers found that reducing alcohol availability by restricting its hours of sale significantly reduced the number of domestic violence cases. Similarly, a study in the United States found that a 1% increase in the price of alcohol resulted in a 5% decrease in intimate-partner violence. In addition, policymakers and authorities should implement stricter regulations and ensure better compliance with laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol to minors.
Media as agents of social order
Societal discourse is often shaped by the media, so there is a point of intersection where members of society develop their perspectives through media-reporting. Yet studies show that the media often sensationalize violence against women and place disproportionate attention on victims. Most reporting is ‘incident based’ not ‘issue based’, and thus does not explore the issue of domestic abuse in depth. And journalists who lack proper training in how to report domestic violence may inadvertently inflict emotional and psychological trauma on women.
Yet solutions are not far from the media’s grasp. The UN, EU, and Council of Europe have all recommended training programmes for professionals, including media organizations, who work with victims of domestic violence. Media agencies should also develop a professional code of conduct outlining how to report news related to sensitive and potentially degrading content.
Further, the focus should be more on the abuser and less on the victim. Researchers in Australia found that 59.8% of incident-based reporting by Australian media contained no information about the perpetrator. Survivors are re-victimized when they report offences, and this makes other women more conscious of judgement. As with victims of sexual violence, survivors should be guaranteed a presumptive right to anonymity, to pre-empt the public judgement that awaits them if they choose to come forward.
Instead, the media should stigmatize crimes, not victims. Moreover, media reporting about perpetrators could promote victims to come forward if they can redirect attention away from making victimhood the story’s primary focus. And to maintain the presumption of innocence, the media should withhold a perpetrator’s identity until after courts determine guilt.
The need for well-networked mobile applications
The digitization of support services could support survivors’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Many countries like India, the US, and Canada provide helpline numbers where domestic violence can be reported. But mere telephone helplines are of less use during a pandemic, when volunteers lack direct access to victims.
Well-networked mobile applications are necessary for victims to report violence discreetly to the police and other support agencies. These apps could also provide a platform that brings together NGOs and medical and legal assistance to offer appropriate and swift recourse. Countries like Iran, Montenegro, and Italy have already established such mobile apps with promising results.
Striking a gender balance
Domestic violence feeds on stereotypical gender norms in patriarchal societies. Women are still often considered inferior to men, and their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing are often neglected. It is necessary to create societies that treat women with dignity and respect. Women must enjoy equal human rights and a safe domestic environment. Fighting domestic abuse help’s protect every individual’s right to dignity, and the measures outlined above could be an important contribution.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.