When Will We Care About Domestic Violence?

Mothers; illustration by Käthe Kollwitz
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource
Käthe Kollwitz: Mothers, 1919

As countries around the world have tracked Covid-19, they’ve seen a sharp spike in another scourge, one of far longer duration and with no known cure: domestic violence. In the last weeks and months, confinement necessitated by the pandemic has caused an increase in calls to police and crisis centers, reporting severe beatings and murder-suicides in the home.

At the beginning of April, for example, in a Chicago suburb, a fifty-four-year-old man convinced that his girlfriend had contracted the virus (she had not) shot her in the head, then killed himself. In the US, calls are pouring into the National Domestic Violence Hotline, whose chief executive told The New York Times, “We’re having really difficult conversations,” advising women to sleep in their cars to escape violent partners and, during arguments, to stay out of dangerous spaces, such as kitchens and bathrooms.

In the UK, at least sixteen domestic abuse killings of women and children occurred during a three-week period from late March to mid-April, double the average. The Canadian Women’s Foundation has been circulating a one-handed signal—fingers entrapping a thumb—for women to use on video calls to silently alert authorities that they need help. A quarantined woman in China told the Times that her husband beat her with a metal high chair while she was holding their infant, until she had no feeling in one leg. A health care worker in Herat, Afghanistan—a country where more than half of all women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime—reports that she has lost touch with many victims in quarantine. She fears for their lives.

Spain has seen an 18 percent rise in calls to hotlines; the UK, 20 percent. French police have reported a 30 percent rise in calls. In Italy, hotel rooms had to be requisitioned when shelters were shut down. The United Nations has called for governments to “put women’s safety first.”

But that has never happened in any country, crisis or no crisis. As Rachel Louise Snyder reveals in her invaluable, deeply reported book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, the prevalence of domestic violence is nothing new. Household barbarity is not only a “global health problem of epidemic proportions,” according to the World Health Organization, it is also the bare twisted root from which other violence in American society stems, from school shootings to mass murder.

Within the first few pages, you will learn that such violence is not an “unfortunate fate for the unlucky few.” In fact:

• Each day, 137 women are killed throughout the world by domestic partners or “familial violence.”

• There are more than a dozen countries where violence against a spouse is legal.

• In 2017,…

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