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Tales from the Trenches: The Shadow Pandemic of Intimate Partner Violence

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our world in a plethora of ways and will most certainly have a ripple effect for the foreseeable future. One destructive effect of the pandemic that has not been adequately addressed is the soaring increase in reports of domestic violence, also referred to as “intimate partner violence” or “IPV.” As we entered the summer, nearly 250 million women and girls had reported suffering occurrences of IPV. The phenomenon has been labeled as “a pandemic within the pandemic,” a “shadow pandemic,” and a “double pandemic.” But to those familiar with IPV, it comes as no surprise, as the rate of abuse is known to spike during times of crises since some of the most common factors associated with its occurrence are exacerbated during such times of crises and natural disasters.

To start, one of the most common and strongest tactics employed by perpetrators of IPV is to socially isolate their victims from friends, family, and outside contact. Social isolation allows abusers to assert control, normalize the abuse, engage in gaslighting techniques, and cause victims to rely completely on their abusers, making it extremely difficult to escape. With victims trapped at home with abusive partners, socially isolated from the outside world by government mandate, the situation couldn’t be worse. But it wasn’t unpredictable. A report from the United Nations warned that school closures and quarantine during the Ebola crises in 2014–2016 led to an increase in multiple forms violence (particularly against women), “including trafficking, child marriage, and sexual exploitation and abuse” and that “COVID-19 is likely driving similar trends.”


In addition to isolation, stress and financial strain are the other predominant factors commonly associated with IPV. Studies have shown that disaster-related stress has been associated with higher rates of IPV both during and after a crises. For example, a study examining the occurrence of IPV in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 found just that. Further, measures such as quarantine and physical distancing tend to increase tension and household stress levels. And higher levels of stress have been associated with increased aggression. In particular, economic anxiety and joblessness serve as types of stressors that have been linked to the increased likelihood that one will suffer from abuse and that the severity of IPV occurrences is likely to be heightened. Indeed, studies examining the 2008 recession indicated there was a correlation between the increase of unemployment claims and an increase in the number of reported cases of IPV.

It should be emphasized, though, as Deborah J. Vagins, President and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has stated, “Someone who has not been abusive does not suddenly become violent and controlling because they have lost a job or are under stay-at-home orders. However, abusers do take advantage of stressful situations . . . to gain more control and to keep survivors from accessing resources and support.” Highlighting that the COVID-19 pandemic itself does not trigger abuse, but exacerbates existing patterns, Vagins explained in a recent interview “that stress, job loss, and other COVID-19 pressures do not cause abuse. Domestic violence is a pattern of power and control, not [just] an individual act of physical violence.” Put simply, the COVID-19 pandemic is “a perfect storm for . . . violent behavior behind closed doors,” as Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, echoed.

As a result of the pandemic, our access to resources has been altered and, in some cases, limited. But living with an abusive partner who can assert power and control to further limit access to resources, such as restraining orders, legal aid services, and advocates; medical care and contraceptives; the financial means to obtain essentials like food, utilities, rent, childcare, and transportation; and the ability to attain or maintain employment, as Vagins pointed out, leads to dire circumstances for victims. Not to mention the difficulties shelters are facing in providing services for survivors, who are likely to feel less safe reaching out for support because of being in such close proximity to their abusive partners.

Perhaps most troubling are the very real and serious concerns that not only is the rate of IPV increasing but also that the occurrences of IPV are increasing in severity. Many researchers are concerned that there will be an increase in self-harm, suicide, and domestic homicides following the pandemic, noting in part that gun sales have skyrocketed over the last several months. And when the major threat of the pandemic is over, there will be long-term effects on the health and safety of survivors.

This is devastating news, given the pre-COVID-19 statistics surrounding IPV. Before the pandemic, more than twelve million people were affected by IPV each year. Not surprisingly, women are much more likely than men to be victimized by a current or former intimate partner. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, eighty-four percent of spouse abuse victims are women and eighty-six percent of victims of abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or girlfriend are women and girls. A survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that more than one in three women and more than one in four men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. With such alarming numbers, the chances are that you already know or will know a victim of domestic violence at some point in your life.


Now, perhaps more than ever, IPV survivors need our support. While there are many ways to get involved in helping to end domestic violence, one of the most tangible ways to do so is by supporting local domestic violence awareness and support organizations. SafeHouse Denver is the only agency in the City and County of Denver that provides both emergency shelter and non-residential counseling and advocacy services to adults, children, and youth experiencing intimate partner violence. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, SafeHouse Denver will be celebrating survivors and inspiring hope virtually next month through its signature event, the Hope Gala. During this month-long celebration, you can help spread awareness about domestic violence and raise critical funds to support survivors. The Gala itself will feature inspiring videos from survivors, staff, and volunteers, and is set to be livestreamed on October 10, at 5:00 p.m. Inspire Hope by registering today for free.

Nicole Jones is currently an Appellate Law Clerk for the Honorable Justice Carlos Samour at the Colorado Supreme Court.  She is the Editor of The 1891’s “Tales from the Trenches” column and a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Publications Committee.  Nicole also serves as the Assistant Program Chair for the Thompson G. Marsh American Inn of Court, co-chair of the Denver Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee’s Pro Bono Week, and as a member of the Colorado Court of Appeals’s Brown Bag and Training Committees.  Any views or opinions reflected in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Supreme Court or the Colorado Judicial Department.

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