The end of January 2020 marked the beginning of widespread social restrictions ranging from communities being placed under government-imposed lockdowns to the introduction of somewhat less-draconian ‘shelter at home’ and ‘stay-at-home’ directives. As COVID-19 travelled the world, and new variants emerged, by 2021 the fatigue and stress of living through a global health pandemic had well and truly settled in. From the two-year period beginning in January 2020, academic and media commentators became increasingly focused on the unintended consequences of these required changes in social behaviour. The potential for increases in violence(s) against women and children became an issue of focus, with the concomitant consequences in terms of fatal outcomes being clearly apparent. This chapter presents evidence of what is known about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on experiences of DFV globally. To do so, it examines international quantitative data and provides country-specific case studies to examine how women’s experiences of violence shifted in prevalence and severity during the pandemic.

The Changing Prevalence of Domestic and Family Violence Throughout the Pandemic

Early evidence of the consequences of stay-at-home directives for women and children during COVID-19 lockdowns were voiced by United Nations (UN) Women. Forecast modelling released in late April 2020 by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA, 2020) predicted that for every three months that lockdowns continued, an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence would occur worldwide. The UN report published in April 2020 indicated that incidents of domestic violence went up by 30% in France since the introduction of the first lockdown on 17 March 2020, while emergency calls for domestic violence went up in Argentina by 25% post-lockdown on 20th March. Cyprus and Singapore logged an increase in helpline calls of 30 and 33%, with similar increases in demands in reports and requests for shelter being reported in Canada, Spain, the UK, the US and Germany.

Similar concerns emerged globally beyond the reporting of the UN. Indeed, early media coverage pointed to an increase in domestic violence reports under lockdown in Hubei province, China, with media reports giving voice to the pressures faced by many non-statutory organisations in meeting the increasing demands for support. This early media reporting was later substantiated by Dai et al. (2021), who examined police service calls from the time of the outset of lockdowns in Hubei. Their research found that the average weekly calls to police in the periods immediately prior to and following a period of lockdowns were substantially higher than previously recorded reporting rates (Dai et al., 2021). Specifically, the study concluded that DFV calls to police had increased by nearly four times compared to pre-pandemic levels (Dai et al., 2021).

Beyond China, similar patterns in increased reporting and prevalence of DFV have been noted by both media commentators and researchers. For example, early data was widely reported in the UK media during the first year of the pandemic from Refuge, a UK women’s shelter organisation. Refuge’s data showed that on average calls and contacts to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline had increased by 49% for the week commencing 6 April 2020 compared to pre-lockdown (Refuge, 2020). Beyond call rates, research undertaken in Australia with DFV specialist practitioners similarly documented an increase in the prevalence and severity of DFV experienced during the first year of the pandemic (see inter alia Carrington et al., 2021; Foster & Fletcher, 2020; Pfitzner et al., 2020, 2022).

Throughout this period, some researchers examining the impact of the pandemic conducted research directly with women via survey data collection. For example, a Jordanian survey of 687 women found a four-times increase in DFV experienced since the onset of the pandemic (Abuhammad, 2021). Similarly, an online survey of 246 married women conducted in the Kurdistan region of Iraq found ‘significant increases’ in intimate partner violence, concluding that when compared to pre-lockdown reporting rates, there was an increase in violence between 32 and 38% (Mahmood et al., 2022). Illustrating the significant underreporting of this form of violence, Abuhammad (2021) found that less than half of the women who reported experiences of violence in the study had reported their victimisation to the police. These findings add some nuanced understanding to earlier work that drew on police-recorded data and found notable increases in the use of violence. It is well documented that such official data sets are likely to provide a partial picture of women’s experiences of violence in general, and it is fair to assume that such partiality remained the case during the pandemic.

However, data published more recently continues to complete the picture, offering a more robust assessment of the impact of the stay-at-home directives on the prevalence and nature of domestic violence. For example, research by Boxall and Morgan (2021) in Australia found that 3.4% of women who were in a relationship in the 12 months prior to the pandemic reported experiencing physical violence for the first time. For those women who had experienced violence prior to the pandemic, 41.7% reported that their experiences of violence had become more frequent or severe since the start of the pandemic (on this point, see also Peitzmeier et al., 2021). The Australian report by Boxall and Morgan (2021) also goes on to document changes in experiences of sexual violence, economic abuse and other forms of abusive behaviour towards women during the initial period of pandemic-related restrictions across Australia.

A systematic review of 100 papers presenting research on violence against women and children in low- and middle-income countries one year on from the start of the pandemic conducted by Bourgault et al. (2021) shows that 80% of these papers point to an increase in such violence(s). In addition, Bourgault et al. (2021) noted common findings in the risk factors underpinning these increases in prevalence, citing lost income and employment, food insecurity and spousal substance abuse as common risk factors identified among the studies that found an increase in rates of violence against women during this period. In studies where no increase in prevalence was noted, the review found that spousal employment on the part of either party in the marriage, and a higher education level, were identified as protective factors. While this review summarises evidence from research conducted during the first year of the pandemic, the findings about risk and protective factors may well continue to hold relevance as counties continue to move through the pandemic.

The Changing Nature of Domestic and Family Violence Victimisation and Perpetration

Building on the focus on prevalence, research since the outset of the pandemic has further sought to document the degree to which new forms of DFV have emerged. Specifically, research conducted in Australia by Pfitzner et al. (2020) drew on the professional experience of DFV practitioners to document the ways in which perpetrators exploited the pandemic and related public health restrictions. In the Australian state of Victoria, participants described ways in which abusers weaponised the pandemic to perpetrate new forms of abuse against their intimate partners. For example, one practitioner in that study described perpetrators:

Demanding women to wash their hands and body excessively to a point [where] women’s skin starts to bleed and become badly irritated; spreading a vicious rumour she’s got COVID-19 so nobody would come near her or help her; taking children away saying she is likely to have/get COVID-19 and is a risk to children. (Pfitzner et al., 2022, p. 6)

Other practitioners reflected on cases where perpetrators used the threat of infection and government-imposed restrictions to force further controls on their partners’ movements, and to gain unwanted access to their homes (Pfitzner et al., 2022, pp. 6–7). Beyond the emergence of new forms of DFV during this early period of the pandemic, government-imposed restrictions throughout the first two years further enhanced conditions where perpetrators could seek to control their victims. The imposition of stay-at-home restrictions, curfews and work-from-home recommendations may have meant that for women in coercively controlling relationships, the degree to which their abusive partners could monitor and control their movements, had never been greater. In many ways, the restrictions imposed—including isolating individuals from family and friends—mirrors many of the behaviours described by Stark (2007) and others in their conceptualisation of coercive control. Recognising the degree to which government-imposed restrictions mimicked the control of an abuser upon a woman’s life is paramount to understanding the potential risks that may emerge as restrictions ease internationally. It is critical to understand the extent to which abusers may seek to retain that level of control over their female partners as communities around the world return to a so-called ‘pre-COVID-19’ level of independence.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Intimate Partner Femicide

Media outlets worldwide have raised the alarm about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the prevalence of intimate partner femicide—the killing of womenFootnote 1—since the early days of the pandemic. Since early 2020, conflicting evidence has emerged on the impact of the pandemic on rates of femicide on global, regional and country-specific levels. Predictions made by ActionAid (2020) in the first year of the pandemic about the potential increase of the killing of women have yet to be fully confirmed. This section explores the contested views over the impact that the first two years of the pandemic has had on rates of intimate partner femicide.

At the global level, a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Research Brief published in November 2021 highlighted the ongoing high rate at which women are killed as a result of male violence worldwide:

Some 47,000 women and girls worldwide were killed by their intimate partners or other family members in 2020. This means that, on average, a woman or girl is killed by someone in her own family every 11 minutes. (UNODC, 2021, p. 3)

Referring to 2020, the report goes on the observe that:

At the national level, monthly data from 14 countries in various regions show high variability in trends across countries but suggest that, overall, female intimate partner/family-related homicides remained relatively unaffected by the lockdowns in those countries. (UNODC, 2021, p. 20)

At the country level, more conclusive claims on femicide during the first two years of the pandemic have emerged. Research by the World Bank (2022), for example, found that in the initial months of the pandemic the rate of femicide increased by 50% in Panama, 25% in Costa Rica and 25% in Ecuador. In Canada, leading femicide researcher Myrna Dawson has flagged concern surrounding the increase in femicide over the three years spanning from a pre-COVID-19 period to late 2021 and beyond (as quoted in Carty, 2021). Dawson cites research collected by the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) which shows that over this three-year period there had been a steady increase in rates of femicide. Specifically, CFOJA data shows that 92 women and girls were killed in Canada in the first six months of 2021, up from 78 during the same period in 2020 and 60 in 2019 (see further University of Guelph, 2021). In stark contrast, other studies have concluded that the rate of femicide has in fact not increased since the outset of the pandemic. For example, research undertaken by Aebi et al. (2021) analysed monthly femicide data from six Spanish speaking countries—Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Panama, Mexico and Spain—to demonstrate that when seasonal distribution of femicides in the three years prior to the pandemic are considered, there does not appear to be any difference in the femicide rates of each country.

Additional research points to the increasing complexities in how and what we measure in our attempts to understand rates of women killed by male violence since the outset of the pandemic. Pointing to the collateral damage of living with violence, researchers have noted the importance of looking beyond documented femicide rates to other relevant criminal justice statistics. For example, Bates et al. (2021, p. 70), in examining data obtained from domestic homicide reviews, suggest: ‘So, it is likely that each year there are more suspected victim suicides with a history of domestic abuse than identified by this project and analysis alone’. Of related concern, some countries have observed an increase in suicide rates since the outset of the pandemic (Santoni et al., 2021), with the 2020 data from several countries including the US showing an escalation in suicides among women and adolescent girls. This research points to the need to be more expansive in what we include in our understandings and calculations of femicide during the pandemic (on the need to reimagine the counting of femicide, see also Walkate & Fitz-Gibbon, 2022).

Data Gaps and the Invisibility of Domestic and Family Violence During the Pandemic

Much of the evidence cited above points to increased demands on support services during times when the challenges of stay-at-home directives were at their most acute. Yet in a systematic review of 17 reports on COVID-19 and domestic abuse, Peterman et al. (2020) point to the inherent difficulties in placing too much weight on administrative data, as it was being reported at a time that such directives were in place. Recognising that the underreporting of violence against women is commonplace in a wide range of jurisdictions (the reasons for which are well documented), Peterman et al. (2020) point out that looking at such data on a month-by-month basis reveals little about wider trends over time and/or the accuracy of the data itself. This can produce contradictory findings. For example, of two early studies based in the US, one suggests a 10% increase in calls to the police for domestic abuse largely driven by households with prior calls of such abuse (Leslie & Wilson, 2020). The second study reports a decrease in such calls in the two cities studied (Mohler et al., 2020). In a study based in the US city of Dallas, Piquero et al. (2020) report a short-term spike in reports followed by a decrease in reporting behaviour. Work by Campedelli et al. (2020) indicates no significant change in reported incidents, with Gerell et al. (2020) reporting a decrease in reports of indoor assaults in Sweden. Freeman (2020) also reports no evidence of an increase in recorded incidents of domestic assault on the introduction of social distancing in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), including the figures for more serious assaults for which it is suggested police involvement might still be expected. Moreover, the work of Fitzpatrick et al. (2020) has demonstrated reports of child abuse decline (in their study by 65%) when schools are closed. So, when availability of services is added to what might amount to small changes in reporting behaviour (when women are reluctant to report in any event), administrative data over short time periods may offer little reliable insight into the wider picture of events.

Concluding Thoughts

This is a shadow pandemic growing during this COVID-19 crisis and a global collective effort is needed to prevent it. The life of women and children moves from their needs to their rights during this pandemic. It is essential to undertake urgent actions to intervene in it. (Wake & Kandula, 2022, p. 1)

As the above quote by Wake and Kandula (2022) captures, there has been significant attention given towards understanding the impacts that the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have had on women’s experiences of men’s intimate partner violence. To date, however, the picture remains somewhat incomplete regarding the impact of periods of lockdowns, and other restrictions, on the prevalence and nature of violence(s) against women and children. As this chapter has shown, the emerging evidence over this two-year period is contradictory and mixed—with some countries reporting increases in women’s experiences of DFV while others reported a continuation of similar rates of victimisation to those recorded in the years prior to the pandemic. This is particularly the case for femicide, where sustained media attention throughout the pandemic sought to ignite fears surrounding the increased killing of women. However, as highlighted throughout this chapter, the degree to which these fears have been realised is, as yet, difficult to understand.

The focus on counting and documenting violence against women and children is important but cannot be our sole focus. It is important to also recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities (Grown & Bousquet, 2020; International Labour Organisation, 2020; United Nations [UN], 2020). In April 2020, a report produced by the UN noted that the pandemic is ‘rapidly unravelling the limited, but precious, progress that the world has made towards gender equality in the past few decades’ (Morse & Anderson, 2020). This includes compounding economic inequalities, adversely impacted access to health services including reproductive and maternal health, and heightening challenges associated with unpaid care work (Grown & Bousquet, 2020; UN, 2020). The heightened gender inequalities arising from this crisis create conditions which are known drivers of male violence against women. An understanding of the structural and gender inequalities arising from the pandemic is therefore critical to undertaking a gender-informed, in-depth analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the prevalence and nature of DFV around the world.