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  • 6th May 2020

Domestic abuse: another emergency that needs to be addressed

A global rise in violence 

More women and girls will be abused and are at risk in this period. Every pandemic and major disaster has found this.”

These were the words of representatives from over 20 organisations working to address violence against women in an open letter to the UK Prime Minister earlier this month.

Since the 23rd of March, when the UK lockdown started, there has been a surge in domestic abuse. Calls to Refuge’s national helpline have increased by 49% compared to before the pandemic, and 14 women and 2 children lost their lives from violence in the home in the space of three weeks, the highest death toll in over a decade. 

This trend can be seen across the world and could be long-lasting. Research indicates that domestic violence escalates during and after large-scale disasters or crises. 

Why survivors do not or cannot seek help

Survivors are at greater risk in times of lockdown. Those who are trapped with their abuser may find it difficult – if not impossible – to call the helplines for fear of being overheard, and many of them are not able to leave their home. 

In the UK, BAME women’s access to services has been particularly affected as they are more likely to access them in person or through the community, and survivors are also less likely to have access to networks, such as friends, family and other people who could help or offer support. 

Apart from economic and logistical challenges such as access to shelters, a number of other barriers may prevent survivors from seeking help. Behavioural insights can help us better understand what barriers survivors are facing. These can include optimism bias (when survivors hope that the relationship will improve and that the abuser will change) and uncertainty aversion (the tendency for survivors to prefer known risks to those that are unknown). 

This situation has devastating consequences for survivors but also for their children who may also experience and/or witness the violence.

How behavioural insights can support policy responses 

There is a lot that can be done by governments, such as housing support and emergency funding for charities who provide help. But we believe that behavioural science can also support early policy responses in a number of ways:

1. Promote help-seeking through different channels and make it as easy as possible for survivors to seek help without raising suspicion.

For instance, embedding content in frequently used social media and apps (e.g. period/fertility trackers) to get in contact with survivors and for them to ask for help using silent and non-verbal alert options (e.g. a buddy system with emergency contacts if they need to reach out urgently). 

In countries where access to tech options are limited, other channels could be used. One could use cash-transfers to provide leaflets or flyers in discreet formats that mimic official health communications. In refugee settings, UNICEF suggested that ‘alert objects’ (such as a coloured cloth) could be delivered in dignity kits. Women and girls who need help would then wear these to activate an alert for support. 

2. Empower bystanders to take action.

Relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours or community volunteers can be the first line of support for survivors. Our research in South Africa shows that bystanders don’t always know how to help and may feel a sense of helplessness and fatalism. Giving information to bystanders on how to spot signs of abuse and what steps to follow, and framing this support as having high impact can encourage action. Our trials in Georgia also show that reminding people that abuse is not a private matter makes people more likely to engage with the content of the communication.

3. Support frontline workers who serve survivors.

Survivor services are likely to be overburdened, leading to increased burnout and decision fatigue amongst staff. Designing communication campaigns can help staff rapidly adopt new procedures and consistently follow them – especially as protocols evolve in the face of COVID-19 – and run email campaigns to support staff mental health and productivity. We previously applied resilience-building strategies to reduce burn-out and turnover among 911 dispatchers in 9 US cities.

Violence against women is another pandemic the world is facing – and it’s not going away. Nearly 1 in 3 women (30%) who have been in a relationship have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. 

We need to tackle this crisis now. According to UNFPA, for every 3 months the lockdown continues, a woeful 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected. The UN agency expects that the pandemic will lead to a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender-based violence by 2030. Behavioural insights can be part of the solution, in this crisis and beyond. 

For more information and other behavioural insights that can support survivors, check out our report ‘Applying Behavioural Insights to Intimate Partner Violence’. 

With special thanks to the BIT team working on Intimate Partner Violence for their ideas and work on this blog (Paloma BellatinMarta Garnelo CaamanoAlexandra de FilippoChloe Bustin and Monica Wills Silva).