Not safe at home

Nomisha Kurian, April 30, 2020

How might we support child and family wellbeing given the flare in domestic violence?

700%. That is the rate of increase (over a single day) in people’s calls for help to the UK’s largest domestic violence charity, Refuge. We have ‘an epidemic with a pandemic on top’, as campaigner Rachel Williams puts it. Our blog series began with Will’s thoughtful note about us extending our collective hearts and solidarity to all of those experiencing loss, trauma, and personal, cultural, and structural violence in this moment. As I hear about the number of domestic killings doubling during lockdown, I realise that our love, solidarity and hopes for peace must address threats we can’t see. Violence that erupts behind closed doors may take place in secret. But we can’t afford to stay silent about the reality that – although we are expected to shelter-in-place – for many, home is not a shelter.

The irony of COVID-19 is that our efforts to protect society simultaneously hurt its members. Lockdowns and school closures are meant to keep us safe, but they create the perfect conditions for domestic violence to spike. Stress. Isolation. Fewer chances to escape the house, call a neighbour or see a friend. Tensions rise as jobs are lost, businesses close, and families start to worry about putting food on the table and caring for sick members. The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action notes that these combined stressors make a rise in domestic violence a familiar pattern in public health emergencies. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Refuge has reported a 150% increase in visits to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline. A helpline for attackers wanting to stop has seen its calls rise by 25%. In the past 6 weeks, an average of 100 domestic violence arrests per day has been recorded in London alone.

As I read these ever-mounting statistics, I feel the complex blend of emotions to which Hilary and Angana referred in their posts: sadness, despair and….hope. Hope that our vibrant community – educators, students, researchers, pastoral care workers – can advocate for a world where the four walls of a home truly represent peace and safety.

The first step might be to name and understand the problem. By the time schools reopen, students’ social ecologies might have changed dramatically. As UNICEF’s ‘Behind Closed Doors’ study puts it, ‘some of the biggest victims of domestic violence are the smallest’. Children often experience anxiety and depression after witnessing their parent or caregiver being harmed. Their quality of care might also be compromised; people who experience violence at their partners’ hands often develop post-traumatic stress disorder and can become emotionally distant or unavailable to their children. What’s more, young people who live in a house where one or both parents are harmed can become 15 times more likely to experience abuse themselves than their peers. In a dynamic called the ‘double layer of intentionality’, child abuse might form part of a perpetrator’s strategy to inflict harm upon an adult partner, creating a dual-violence family. Some victims may even physically abuse their own children as a reaction to the intense stress they face, perpetuating the cycle of violence. Since socio-economic deprivation has been associated with a higher likelihood of experiencing domestic violence, learners and families facing poverty in this pandemic might be at special risk.

What might we do to support learners and their families? I am reminded of Tim’s comment that ‘the work of peace is needed more than ever’. Given that women are statistically more likely to experience domestic violence, strengthening gender-sensitive social protection policies might be a path to protecting entire families and generations. Perhaps we can drive change from our own backyards. The Cambridge University Student Union has just passed a motion calling on colleges to give their empty accommodation to domestic violence victims. Many might be afraid to leave their abusive situations lest they become homeless. To understand such nuances, we might need to think beyond individual wellbeing and locate learners within their wider community ecologies. This would mean being mindful of the risks faced by their caregivers and the socio-cultural hazards that can spill over into their everyday lives.

We can also advocate for relationships of care and trust between school staff and students. UNICEF recommends that school staff cultivate the knowledge to respond empathetically to children exposed to domestic violence; help them feel listened-to and believed; let them know they are not alone; emphasise that nothing they have witnessed is their fault; refer them to suitable social services; and help alleviate the stress of their experiences by building a warm, compassionate relationship. In this time of social distancing, working out new ways to offer care will be challenging, but it seems vital to prioritise tackling domestic violence in our activism, advocacy, pedagogy and pastoral care. After all, it isn’t too different from COVID-19: an ongoing crisis that transcends borders and threatens our collective wellbeing as a global community.

Nomisha Kurian is a PhD candidate researching wellbeing and care in settings of violence and poverty. You can read her past work here: