Addressing domestic violence in the Time of Covid-19

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Photograph: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

With a movement control order in place, abusers and victims are forced to stay indoors in close quarters over an extended period. Prema Devaraj writes of the concerns that arise. 

Dealing with domestic violence even in the best of times is difficult.

Those who have had experience supporting and working with domestic violence victims will know how difficult it is for victims to speak about their abuse or ask for help, let alone lodge a report about the abuse.

And now in the time of Covid-19, with a movement control order in place, abusers and victims are forced to stay indoors in close quarters over an extended period. This raises concerns over not only the occurrence of abuse but also the limited opportunity for victims to reach out for help.

It is a living hell for those at the receiving end of abuse, more so when it is repetitive and the victim is confined with the abuser. And that is why serious effort must be put in place to reach domestic violence victims.

Understanding this, several women’s groups have kept their hotlines open during the movement control order period.

For example, the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC) has offered assistance and support to domestic violence during this period through their Penang Island helplines 011-3108 4001 and 016-428 7265 and mainland Penang helplines 016-439 0698 and 016-418 0342.

Sisters in Islam can be reached at their hotline 011-2370 1006.

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has also publicised their 24-hour hotline at 03-7956 3488 or WhatsApp TINA at 018-9888 058 for support and help.  

Some of these groups are also contactable via their email, Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Importantly WAO has suggested six immediate actions to be taken by the National Domestic Violence Committee:

  • Issue clear standard operating procedures for responding to domestic violence during the movement control order
  • Ensure that survivors can obtain interim protection orders and emergency protection orders
  • Publicise support pathways for survivors
  • Improve the availability of temporary shelters and make them an essential service
  • Ensure that financial aid reaches domestic violence survivors
  • Allocate sufficient resources to ensure an effective emergency response
READ MORE:  Movement control order: Treat domestic violence support as essential service

Knowing how difficult it is for victims to make a report, it becomes critical that, when a call for help is made, immediate action is taken and the necessary follow-up carried out to ensure the victim’s safety and wellbeing. 

The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development is apparently working closely with the police through special hotlines (Talian Kasih at 15999 or WhatsApp 019-261 5999), which victims of domestic violence and child abuse can contact.

Reportedly, the police will take immediate actions based on these complaints. This is an improvement from the ministry’s initial stand of wanting to suspend the helpline during the movement control order period. All this will no doubt have to be documented, monitored and evaluated for its effectiveness.

When victims of domestic violence reach out for help, it is just the first step towards their accessing help, support and protection. A lot more would still need to be done to ensure their safety after that, including issuing of protection orders, ensuring access to shelters and financial aid if and where necessary. It is not an easy process for the victims.

Hence those along the chain of service providers need to prioritise the needs of a domestic violence victim and facilitate, where possible, immediate remedy and redress during the movement control order.  

There is also the challenge of reaching out to victims who may be unable to call for help as the abuser could be near or may have control over the mobile phone. So publicising tips on safety planning while living with an abusive partner, could be of some help. Adapting from the National Domestic Violence Hotline USA, these include: 

  • Identify safe areas of the house where there are no weapons and where there are ways to escape. If arguments occur, try to move to those areas
  • Don’t run to where the children are, as the abuser may hurt them as well
  • Teach your children how to get help. Instruct them not to get involved in the violence between you and your partner. Plan a code word to signal to them that they should get help or leave the house
  • Try not to wear scarves or long jewellery that could be used to strangle you
  • Create several plausible reasons for leaving the house at different times of the day (movement control order-permitting) 
  • Let trusted friends and neighbors know of your situation and develop a plan and visual signal for when you need help
  • If violence is unavoidable, make yourself a small target. Dive into a corner and curl up into a ball with your face protected and arms around each side of your head, fingers entwined
  • If possible, have a phone accessible at all times and know what numbers to call for help. If your life is in danger, call the police
READ MORE:  What some people don't seem to understand about domestic violence

Such tips should be made accessible in different languages and circulated widely through social media and public service announcements. Family members or neighbours should be encouraged to report incidents of abuse to the helplines or the authorities if they are in the know. 

What is often not understood about domestic violence is the power dynamics that exist between the abuser and the victim – and how the abuse is used to control the victim. It is not about anger or stress management or improving communication skills or avoiding conflict in the home. 

Many people don’t understand what a victim of domestic violence goes through, ie terror, tension, a sense of feeling trapped, helplessness and desperation for the abuse to stop. Nor is there full understanding of the repetitiveness, extent of the abuse (eg emotional, physical or sexual) experienced or the impact of the abuse on the victim and other members in the household who witness the abuse, especially the children.

As such, the recent tips from the deputy women, family and community development minister on avoiding conflict in the home during the movement control order, while well-meaning for reducing marital conflict, is of little use to those experiencing domestic violence. 

Calming oneself, valuing a partner’s good points, being prayerful, saying thank you and sorry will not help someone on the receiving end of domestic violence. Needless to say, her tips prompted a reaction: 

The message from the deputy minister about reporting domestic violence to the helpline should have been made more explicit and focused.

The seriousness of domestic violence (and child abuse), especially during this crisis period, must be acknowledged. Such messaging should be applicable to all Malaysians irrespective of their faiths.  

READ MORE:  Perkhidmatan keganasan rumah tangga WAO boleh didapati secara maya (Malay/English)

The experience of the movement control order varies for different people. For some, it is tedious, boring and restrictive. For others it is about survival – it is about battling health issues, surviving poverty and, in the case of domestic violence victims, surviving abuse.  

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