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Domestic abuse rises with virus lockdowns

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating domestic violence as half the world's population grapples with stay-at-home orders to keep the virus from spreading.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating domestic violence around the globe as half the world's population grapples with stay-at-home orders to keep the virus from spreading, U.N. and public health officials said on Monday.

So, too, are reports of online child abuse on the rise. Before the pandemic, which began with infections detected in Wuhan, China late last year, statistics showed one in three women will experience violence in their lives.

An upsurge in domestic violence since then has been reported in all regions including nations such as Argentina, China, Germany, Honduras, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and United Nations.

The initiative aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls as part of the U.N.'s 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

In recent months, its work has intensified as crisis hotlines and public health authorities grapple with a consequence of the pandemic that is in line with the tendency for domestic violence to increase when families spend time together, typically around holidays and vacation breaks.

"It’s clear that when women and girls are ‘locked down’ in their homes with abusive partners, they are at much greater risk than ever before," U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who chairs the initiative, said in a statement. "Addressing gender-based violence must be at the center of all domestic plans on COVID-19 response."

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres urged governments to make it a priority to deal with the pandemic-related jump in domestic violence, saying upholding women's rights and freedoms is essential to peaceful societies.

Fight against impunity

Abusers typically resort to physical violence, behavioral restrictions, psychological manipulation and deprival of basic needs to isolate victims from family, friends or colleagues. Though it is essential for people to remain at home to fight the pandemic, prolonged confinement sets up conditions in which abusers can take advantage of more opportunities to impose their will.

France's interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said last week reports of domestic violence grew by more than 30% since the country began a virus lockdown on March 17. The lockdown, similar to those imposed on half the world's population, is in place at least until mid-April.

Women with no internet access, said Castaner, can use a new toll-free text message service to reach French security. “I will not allow the lockdown to be associated with impunity,” he said. Italy and Spain, devastated by the pandemic, also reported huge upticks in domestic abuse.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Mail on Sunday authorities are targeting domestic abusers who exploit the lockdown. "I am acutely aware that the necessary guidelines about social distancing and self-isolation may leave the victims of hidden crime, such as domestic abuse and child sexual abuse, feeling especially isolated, vulnerable and exposed," said Patel.

"My message to every potential victim is simple: we have not forgotten you and we will not let you down," she said. "And my message to every perpetrator is equally simple: you will not get away with your crimes."