While restrictions on movement and physical distancing rules were in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic, there were growing concerns that women and children could be exposed to domestic violence. However, because not all victims contact the police or support services, the actual dimensions of the problem remained unknown.
Janina Steinert, Professor of Global Health at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Dr. Cara Ebert of the RWI – Leibniz Institute for Economic Research, therefore conducted an online survey on the experiences of around 3,800 women between the ages of 18 and 65. The study is representative for Germany in terms of age, education, income, household size and place of residence. The women were asked about the preceding month between April 22 and May 8 2020, i.e. the period in which the strictest social distancing rules were in effect. To address the possibility that some of the respondents might be too embarrassed to give truthful answers, the researchers used a recognized method of indirect questioning for highly stigmatized forms of violence, e.g. sexual violence.
Almost 5 percent of partners control the women's contacts
This first major German study on this topic shows:
Physical violence: 3.1 percent of the women was involved in at least one form of physical conflict in the home, for instance being beaten. In 6.5 percent of all households, children were subjected to corporal punishment.
Sexual violence: 3.6 percent of women were forced into sex by their partners.
Emotional violence: 3.8 percent of the women felt threatened by their partners and 2.2 percent were not permitted to leave their home without permission. In 4.6 percent of all cases, the partners controlled the women's contacts with others, including digital channels such as messenger services.
A comparison of these figures with pre-pandemic data would not be conclusive because past studies surveyed experiences of violence over longer periods, but not after a period of only a few weeks.
Financial insecurity as a risk factor
The number of victims, in the case of both women and children, was higher when:
- the survey respondents were quarantined at home (physical violence against women: 7.5%, physical violence against children: 10.5%).
- the family suffered from acute financial insecurity (physical violence against women: 8.4 %, physical violence against children: 9.8 %).
- one partner had working hours reduced or had become unemployed due to the pandemic (physical violence against women: 5.6%, physical violence against children: 9.3 %).
- one of the partners was suffering from anxiety or depression (physical violence against women: 9.7 %, physical violence against children: 14.3 %).
- respondents were living in households with children under 10 years of age (physical violence against women: 6.3 %, physical violence against children: 9.2 %).
Based on these risk factors, the researchers made several recommendations for current and possible future lockdowns and distancing policies during a potential "second wave" of the pandemic: "Emergency childcare services should be set up that are open not only to the children of parents in essential occupations," says Janina Steinert. "Because depression and anxiety increase the potential for violence, psychological counseling and therapy should also be available online and should be easily accessible without red tape. Women's shelters and other support facilities must continue to be classified as essential services."
"Make help available online"
The researchers also asked whether the women concerned were aware of and utilized support services:
- 48.2 percent of the victims were aware of counseling helplines and 3.9 percent had placed a call.
- 32.4 percent were aware of the domestic violence hotline and 2.7 percent had called the number to find help.
- 44.3 percent were aware of the parental distress line and 21.5 percent had placed a call there.
- 5.5 percent were aware of the "Codewort Maske 19" campaign, in which pharmacists contact the authorities when a customer uses a code word. 1.8 percent had made use of this possibility.
"When women are coercively controlled by their partners, it is difficult for them to access telephone-based counseling services. For these women, help should also be available online via chat, messenger, and email," says Cara Ebert. "In addition, more needs to be done to raise awareness of the available support services, for example through large posters in supermarkets and pharmacies and through online ads."
A smaller survey by the researchers was included in the regular "COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring (COSMO)", in which several research institutions analyze the "psychological situation" in Germany.
The study described here was funded by the Dr. Hans Riegel Foundation and the Joachim Herz Foundation.
Prof. Janina Steinert conducts research at the Bavarian School of Public Policy and the TUM School of Governance. Dr. Cara Ebert conducts research at the RWI - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research.
Contacts to this article:
Prof. Dr. Janina Steinert
Technical University of Munich (TUM)
Professorship of Global Health
Tel.: +49 89 907793 321