Activists rally on Capitol Hill for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. (Getty Images)

As gender-based violence increases under COVID-19, Congress’s inaction is more appalling than ever

By: Tarah Demant, Director, Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program, Amnesty International USA

Note: If you are experiencing or have experienced intimate-partner violence/domestic violence you can call:

· National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1–800–799-SAFE (1–800–799–7233) or visit www.thehotline.org .

· StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1–844–762–8483 or visit www.strongheartshelpline.org (for culturally specific help for Native Americans impacted by domestic violence)

Some 90 countries are in various forms of lockdown to stem the tide of COVID-19. That’s nearly four billion people sheltering at home. Self-isolating, staying home, avoiding unnecessary contact outside your home, closing non-essential workplaces — these are all critical measures that will help “flatten the curve” of Coronavirus, making sure fewer people become infected and hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. These are measures meant to keep us safe. These are measures happening here at home and in countries around the world as governments try to ensure the safety of their people.

For most of us sheltered in place, this means having to adapt — and get creative — about how we get work done, how we connect with each other, even how we can continue in our activism (don’t worry, we have ideas!). Staying in, adapting, taking care of ourselves and others — this is the new normal while we’re now stuck at home.

What happens when home is unsafe?

But for some people, home isn’t a safe place. This is particularly true for those living in situations of intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence (DV).

Domestic violence in a type of gender-based violence committed by a person with whom the victim has, or had, a romantic or sexual relationship. It is a pattern of behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish, or force them to behave in ways they do not want. This includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of domestic violence/abuse can be occurring at any one time within the same intimate relationship.

Before COVID-19, domestic violence rates in the United States were already staggering. 1 in 4 women, and one in 10 men, have experienced intimate partner violence with a “negative impact” on them, (including receiving injury, needing help from law enforcement, missing at least one day of work or school, or contacting a crisis hotline).

While people of all sexes and genders may experience intimate partner violence, women experience more severe violence with more serious consequence. Between 40% and 50% of all murders of women in the US are committed by intimate partners.

The tragic irony is that while shelter-in-place orders are put in place to keep us all safe and address COVID-19, they are decidedly LESS safe for those who are now trapped with their abusers.

Domestic Violence is increasing during COVID-19

What’s even more troubling is that rates of domestic violence are increasing during COVID-19. The COVID crisis has created a pressure-cooker situation: exacerbating stressors like financial pressure, family pressure, social anxiety, job loss, anger at politics, and social isolation.

It’s a global problem, with countries reporting spikes in domestic violence as the impact of the virus exacerbates stressors and lockdown measures isolate those experiencing domestic violence. And the US is no exception to this rise of domestic violence. Several US cities have reported spikes in domestic violence calls to police; the National Domestic Violence Hotline has reported a spike in calls for help; and many DV shelter are full. In two weeks in March, early in the stay-at-home trend, 1,765 callers to the Domestic Violence Hotline reported specifically that their abusive partner was leveraging COVID-19 to “further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship.”

Sadly, these numbers are likely not the full picture, as domestic violence advocates fear that some survivors are unable to reach out for help as they cannot leave the house or safely break away from their abuser to reach out for help.

What’s more, with as some states designating gun stores as “essential businesses,” women with abusive partners are increasingly at risk. As Amnesty International has reported, women who are killed by an intimate partner are more likely to be killed by a firearm than any other means combined. Every month (before COVID), an average of 52 women were shot and killed by an intimate partner. Nearly 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners.

Congress has left women MORE vulnerable to domestic violence

In so many ways, COVID-19 has revealed many of the ugly realities for many Americans — the inequality baked into our systems, the lack of regard there can be for more vulnerable people, the prioritization of profit over people. And the situation facing domestic violence survivors is one more example of that. Because, while COVID-19 has made the situation measurably worse, domestic violence survivors were already left more vulnerable because of Congress’s inaction.

Despite the reality that many women and domestic violence survivors are daily fighting for their lives, now even more desperately under COVID, Congress has cut the most basic support line to prevent and respond to domestic violence: they have allowed the Violence Against Women act to lapse.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is the legislation that provides critical funding and programming on domestic and sexual violence — it funds DV and sexual assault shelters, national and local hotlines, and programs and services to prevent and respond to violence against women.

And yet, for the first time since it was introduced in 1994, Congress has let VAWA expire.

This means that all the services for domestic and sexual violence survivors that depend on VAWA funding are left in this now heightened time of need wondering if and how they can continue services.

In April of 2019, the House of Representatives passed a VAWA reauthorization, one that includes strong protections for survivors, including better protections for Native American women, inclusive protections for LGBTQ survivors, and closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows abusers to remain armed with guns.

But VAWA remains stalled in the Senate, with two “competing” bills. Senator Feinstein’s (CA) S.2843 includes critical protection for Native American women and LGBTQ survivors. Unfortunately, a competing bill has been introduced by Senator Ernst (IA), which would strip protections from LGBTQ survivors, roll back LGBTQ non-discrimination policies, and go backwards on progress for Native women, and keep the “boyfriend loophole.” That isn’t protection; it’s a rollback.

During this time of heightened violence and uncertainty, Congress MUST prioritize reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act — one that protects Native women and LGBTQ survivors, one that doesn’t prioritize guns over DV survivors.

These lockdown measures are necessary to keep us safe, and Congress must ensure that ALL people are safe during this time, including those facing domestic violence.

YOU can take action — From your couch, from your chair, from wherever you are!

As the world deals with the gender-based violence implications, the UN Secretary General has called for governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic. The United States has failed most spectacularly to do so. And though we are all physically distant, we can still stand together, and demand Congress take action.

· Email your senators and insist they reauthorize VAWA — now — and support S.2843.

·And after you do that, CALL them, and leave a message (offices are checking messages). Click here for a phone script.

· Call their DC office.

· Then call their local district office.

· Then share the action with friends who can email and make calls.

During COVID, those facing violence at home can’t rest. WE can’t rest until they are safe. Take action!

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