‘Cries for Help Are Going to Hit Us Like a Tsunami’: Domestic Abuse – the Other Coronavirus Disease

Jewish or Arab, in Israel or in Gaza, there has been a huge uptick in the number of reported incidents of violence against women during the lockdown – and the true figure is likely to be much worse

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
A protest in 2018 calling for stronger action to combat violence against women in Israel.
A protest in 2018 calling for stronger action to combat violence against women in Israel. Credit: Emil Salman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

Walk through any given neighborhood on one of these lockdown nights and you may well hear the sound of couples fighting, their raised voices wafting out into an otherwise quiet night.

Frustrations over being cooped up during the coronavirus lockdown and a lack of control over what’s coming next – compounded by financial worries and stresses of being indoors 24/7 with partners and children – are ingredients that don’t necessarily mesh well. For many, some degree of discord is to be expected.

But for others, this perfect storm of difficult conditions exacerbates and triggers far worse responses.

“The national rhetoric is: ‘Your home is your fortress’; ‘Being home is the best thing’; and ‘Everyone just stay home!’” says Miriam Schler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv. “But for a lot of these victims, home is the worst place to be.”

Domestic violence between couples – be it sexual, mental, verbal or physical – is on the rise, as are other kinds of violent and sexual assault in the home (for example, those perpetrated on children by adults).

There may not be daily updates in the newspapers detailing who, where and how many are affected. But for those paying attention to this particular knock-on effect of the lockdown, the picture is clear: Not only are the number of abuse cases going up, but – even more worrying – it seems we are nowhere near the peak.

Psychotherapist Ziv Raz, who does domestic violence training within the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, puts it bluntly: “When the lockdown eases up, the number of cries for help is going to hit us like a tsunami.”

Another global crisis

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, this crisis is a global one. The first reports about the phenomenon emerged from the place where the coronavirus originated: Wuhan. By early February, police stations across the Chinese province were seeing two- and threefold increases in complaints of domestic violence.

A person in a shelter for battered women. The number of calls to domestic abuse hotlines has spiked during the coronavirus lockdown.Credit: Ilan Assayag

By March, such stories were being repeated around the world – from Lebanon to Malaysia to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the National Domestic Abuse helpline reported almost a 50 percent increase in calls and online requests for help after three weeks of lockdown. In France, the spike in the country’s first week of lockdown was 30 percent. In Australia, meanwhile, Google had a 75 percent surge in searches for help over domestic violence.

In places as distant as Turkey and Argentina, there have been similarly frightening reports of hikes in the number of women being violently killed by partners or ex-partners since the lockdown began.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres released a video earlier this month calling for peace in homes around the world. “Violence is not confined to the battlefield,” he said, adding that “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”

In Israel, the police say there was a 16 percent increase in domestic violence reports in March and calls to the domestic abuse hotline operated by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry soared in the second half of April. The hotline, which can be reached by dialing 118 locally, received 400 complaints between April 16 and April 27, compared to 244 complaints between March 15 and April 15. Last week the center received 222 complaints, a record for a single week.

Even if these growing numbers are accurate – and there is a recurring debate about underreporting – the data fail to portray the nuanced picture of what kind of abuse is going on, and in what communities.

For example, among the Bedouin population in the Negev, there has been a 40 percent rise in calls to hotlines and the police, says Women of Violence Director Naila Awad. Her organization runs a domestic violence treatment center in Nazareth and a national Arabic language hotline. Part of the problem now, Awad says, is that there’s a lag in up-to-date information available in Arabic. And that information is needed more than ever: According to Awad, there have been four murders of women that are directly tied to the lockdown – and three of those were within the Arab community.

There was a fifth femicide on Tuesday, this time among the Ethiopian-Israeli community in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. According to the police, the victim had recently returned to her marital home after spending time in a women’s shelter. Her husband, meanwhile, had just been released from prison, where he was serving time for previous attacks on his wife.

There is also a problem with disseminating up-to-date information within the ultra-Orthodox population, says Tzilit Jacobson. She is chairwoman of Bat Melech, which supports domestic violence victims among the Haredim – a community where, although femicide may be rare, other forms of abuse are not. Jacobson explains that this is part of the overall challenge of conveying warnings about coronavirus-related dangers to a community where few watch mainstream TV, read online posts or, to some extent, even trust nonreligious authorities

“We have to work in other ways to get the message out – not only to potential victims themselves, but to their neighbors and families and the larger community – that these women are not alone and they have somewhere to turn, even now. Especially now,” Jacobson says.

An Arab victim of domestic abuse.Credit: Gil Eliahu

But if there is one thing everyone – from the Labor Ministry, police and courts to the nongovernmental organizations, private centers and therapists – all seem to agree on, it’s that the official numbers of complaints in every part of society does not reflect what is really going on behind those locked-down doors now, during the pandemic.

Experts believe there are three main reasons for the delay in reporting.

First and foremost, there are victims in lockdown who simply cannot get away from their abusers long enough to file a report. And there are others who were already getting help, but can’t find the physical or mental space to join their now-virtual support groups.

“Our fear is that when society starts reopening up, the pressure on all of us who work with victims will be very great. People will allow themselves to break down,” says Eran Hahn, a psychotherapist who works at Tel Aviv’s Sexual Assault Crisis Center with male victims of sexual assault (including boys).

“Imagine you are somewhere with no privacy whatsoever during this lockdown,” Hahn says. “It’s unlikely you will go into a bathroom or closet and feel comfortable discussing your deepest traumas.”

Secondly, while there has been a higher-than-usual incidence of neighbors calling the police or hotlines to share concerns in recent weeks, this does not make up for the loss of eyes and ears in the larger community. With offices, classrooms and stores empty, there are many fewer co-workers, friends or teachers around who might normally discover what’s going on in a household and encourage the victim to seek help.

And finally, like during times of war, where reports of domestic violence traditionally go down, there are many victims who seem to be making the calculation that they are better off waiting out this period because they can’t face even more upheaval.

“What we have now is a state of emergency,” says Ibrahim Agbaria, a social worker who runs “fatherhood” support circles for Arab men in Jaffa, as well as one-on-one counseling. “Women don’t want to open up a new front within the house,” he says. “They prefer to wait this moment out – and will make their complaint afterward.”

It’s even more unlikely, Agbaria adds, that those perpetrating the violence would seek help now. “It’s rare for a violent man to reach out for help in any case. That’s part of the problem: they typically don’t realize they even are abusive. It takes a lot of work before many of these men recognize it’s their problem – not their wife’s and not anyone else’s,” he says.

Get ready for a deluge

Early on in the lockdown, the Labor Ministry created a virtual roundtable of the 20 main players in the field, government and NGO alike.

Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network and a co-chair of the roundtable, says this cooperation is welcome. But, she notes, there is a long way to go before the government recognizes the extent of the problem and the expected deluge – and moves to prioritize and address it.

What their virtual group is managing to do, she says, is to find solutions for some of the more “micro” and immediate problems. For example, a new reporting system that allows victims to signal they need help via SMS has been set up; hotlines have been expanded; and on Sunday a new shelter will be opened for battered women who need to be isolated because they either have the coronavirus or have been exposed to it.

Still, there is a lot of confusion for those in need: Not all social workers have been declared “essential workers”; the country’s 14 women’s shelters (including two for Arab women and two for the ultra-Orthodox) remain open, but some staff and programs have been reduced; and most of the 114 domestic violence treatment centers across the country have migrated programs and counseling to Zoom or by phone – but not all of the services.

The courts, in turn, are dealing with extreme cases but delaying less acute ones. “This leads to terrible stress for, say, anyone in the midst of making a complaint,” explains Lilach Ben Ami, a coordinator of criminal proceedings for survivors of sexual abuse. “Their lives have been on hold for months, maybe years, waiting for their court case – and now it is all being delayed again,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, Women’s Affairs Center Director Amal Syam says ruefully that Gazans have had numerous years of lockdown experience, alongside stress over money, work and the future.

Even so, she says, the added anxieties brought on by the coronavirus crisis – and the fear that Gazans would be helpless were it to break out there – are pushing some to their limits. Syam’s center, which usually runs two free hotlines for victims of domestic violence, has added another three in order to meet demand.

“When we talk about violence against women, we must remember that even before the coronavirus, violence was increasing here day-by-day, year-by-year,” Syam says. “I remember UNRWA [the UN Relief and Works Agency] once said that by 2020 Gaza would be under so much pressure, it would be uninhabitable. Now we are in 2020 and the whole world is under terrible pressure – so you can imagine how it is here.”

If you are a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call one of these hotlines for help and advice: 118 (national hotline for reporting domestic abuse); 1202 (women’s nationwide hotline); 1-800-353-300 (fighting violence against women); 1-800-292-333 (Bat Melech hotline for the ultra-Orthodox), and 04-656-6813 (Arabi clanguage hotline).

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