TW: Mention of domestic abuse and sexual violence
Written by Joanna Pamoukoglou, EST Ambassador to the Netherlands
The unprecedented circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have shed light on a devastating underlying crisis, that of domestic violence. The UN reports that cases of domestic abuse have allegedly increased globally up to 20% during the lockdown, exposing a ‘shadow pandemic’ which thrived under the circumstances of isolation and confinement (Mohan, 2020).
For many, the stay-at-home restrictions meant a dreadful entrapment in the least safe of spaces. With families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines saw a spike in abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that experts say they should have been prepared for. Marianne Hester, a Bristol University sociologist, said that the rise in domestic abuse during lockdown was nothing but predictable (Taub, 2020). Domestic violence increases whenever families spend more time together, even more so during a time of crisis which entails economic stress, uncertainty and instability, and reduced options for support.
Although the rise of domestic abuse during lockdown was to some extent expected, the increase of ‘femicides’ following the ease of the COVID-19 restrictions is arguably less predictable. Global data gathered throughout the years indicate that domestic violence is to a large extent a gendered crime, deeply rooted in male-dominated power dynamics in intimate relationships. Notably, over 1 in 4 women globally have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner at least once in their lifetime, while as many as 38% of total murders of women worldwide are committed by intimate partners (WHO, 2021).
In Spain, one woman has been killed every three days since lockdown restrictions were lifted in May 2021, compared to an average of one per week before (France24, 2021). In Belgium, 13 women have died from domestic violence since the end of April, in comparison to the 24 during the whole of 2020; while in France, 56 women have been murdered so far as opposed to 46 for the same period last year (Ibid.). In Greece, 12 femicides by intimate or former partners have occurred since the start of 2021, up against 8 in 2020 (Ioannou, 2021). Pauline Baron of Nous Toutes attributed this phenomenon to the fact that gendered crime usually occurs when the victim has made the decision to leave their partner and residence, which was harder to do during lockdown (Ruetir, 2021). For abusers, life gradually returning to normal indicated a decrease of the control they enjoyed throughout the lockdowns.
During this period, when under-funded institutions like shelters and NGOs protecting domestic abuse victims were further strained by the increased demand brought by the pandemic (Usher et al., 2020), the police was unfortunately not perceived as a viable alternative for protection. Victims’ trust in the public force seems to be declining across Europe, as cases of domestic abuse are reportedly not treated with the appropriate diligence. According to a French study conducted by Nous Toutes, 66% of domestic violence victims say that their cases are not treated adequately by the French police – the most frequent accusations being: a) normalisation of the abuse; b) discouragement of the victim to file a complaint; and c) victim-blaming (Nous Toutes, 2020). In 2020, the French domestic violence hotline received 70% more calls than in 2019, but 40% of those calls were not answered due to budgetary reasons (Ruetir, 2020).
According to Amnesty International, femicides in Italy are a roaring phenomenon, partly due to the failure of the police to provide protection measures to women at risk (Amnesty International, 2019). In Greece, a 31-year-old woman was murdered by her husband on July 11, just 19 days after a neighbour reported domestic abuse to the police who did not take any action against the perpetrator. In light of this incident, a letter written in 2020 by the Greek police headquarters was made public (Labropoulos, 2021). The letter was addressing numerous complaints officers have received regarding their mishandling of domestic abuse cases, with accusations including deterring citizens from filing reports, denying to accept lawsuits, and not following protocol that enforces arrest. In the UK, victims tend to feel ignored by the police (Topping, 2021), while three out of four domestic abuse offences reported to the force end without the perpetrator being charged (Grierson, 2021).
The UK police have recently come under stark criticism, being accused of deeply embedded institutional misogyny following revelations about the brutal murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzen (Dodd, 2021). The tragic incident highlighted the incapability of the Metropolitan Public Service to guarantee the safety of British women, urging major media outlets to conduct further investigations. Their findings spotlighted the epidemic of officer-perpetrated domestic abuse within the UK police force.
According to figures published by the Mirror, twenty-six of Couzen’s colleagues have been convicted of sex crimes including rape, possession of indecent images of children, and voyeurism since 2016 (McKelvie et al., 2021). Five of them allegedly carried out sex offences while on duty since 2010, while one officer was recruited last year despite having a conviction for indecent exposure (Ibid.). A Freedom of Information request by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK found that from 2015 to 2018, there were almost 700 reports of domestic violence involving police officers and staff (Stephenson, 2021). More than 125 officers’ spouses have reported that their partner is abusing them or their children, throughout the past two years. The figures also show that police servants accused of domestic violence are a third less likely to be convicted than the general public — 3.9 percent compared to 6.2 percent (Ibid.). Victims’ testimonies confirm that impunity runs deep when it comes to sexual crimes and domestic abuse committed by police officers themselves, with police failing to investigate their own.
Serving police officers found guilty of gendered violence are not a phenomenon exclusive to the UK. In May 2021, Chahinez Daoud was shot and burned alive by her former husband in the town of Merignac (Ruetir, 2021). A few weeks later, 22-year-old Stéphanie Di Vincenzo was stabbed to death by her partner in Hayange (Ibid.). Both women had recently filed complaints about domestic violence, but no action was taken. In Daoud’s case, the police officer who took her complaint was in disciplinary proceedings at the time due to habitually committing physical abuse against his wife (Pedram, 2021). In Greece, the story of a 19-year-old girl who fell victim to sex trafficking, sexual and physical abuse to a police officer came to light this July. The girl reported that she was romantically affiliated with the police officer before he forced her into unpaid sex work. In the period between 2019 and 2021, the Spanish NGO Temblores documented at least 70 cases of sexual violence involving members of the national police (Salazar, 2021).
Police officers engaging in such heinous crimes are certainly not the rule and there is no doubt that numerous officers commit wholeheartedly to the protection of the vulnerable population. Nonetheless, the aforementioned figures and incidents indicate that these cases are not the exception either. To varying extents, women cross-nationally feel like their abuse by their intimate partners is significantly undermined or ignored by the police, while personal testimonies indicate that there is a vast lack of empathy in the handling of victims of domestic violence.
The combination of these phenomena rightfully creates a climate of distrust towards the police among vulnerable women. This insecurity adds up to the long list of reasons preventing victims of domestic violence from speaking up and seeking help, pushing them deeper into the abyss of their victimisation. To reclaim women’s trust, public forces across Europe need to show accountability for past failures and manifest this in their future policies.
- Police departments need to invest in training and education of officers on cases of domestic abuse, aiming for compassionate approaches to victims. Education could potentially prevent or minimise unethical conduct such as victim-blaming, negligence and normalisation of abusive behaviour.
- Officers should be incentivised to report on colleagues who do not meet professional standards. Omertà is a widely adhered to unwritten rule within the police force which allows the perpetuation of immoral/criminal acts and arbitrariness within the institution.
- Perpetrators should be arrested, tried, and prosecuted. We need to send the message that domestic abuse is a serious crime that will be treated accordingly until abusers are no longer free of the fear of repercussions.
- Most importantly: police forces must keep officers to the highest possible standard and avoid at all costs engaging in favouritism among their own. It is necessary to conduct thorough investigations into accusations against serving officers’ misdemeanors and crimes. We cannot expect domestic abuse cases to be taken seriously by people who could potentially identify with the perpetrator. As journalist Conor Friedersdorf put it, ‘if there’s any job that domestic abuse should disqualify a person from holding, isn’t it the one job that gives you a lethal weapon and relies on your judgment and discretion to protect the abused against the abusers?’ (Friedersdorf, 2014).
Domestic violence is intergenerational, and its consequences extend to countless societal issues, from childhood trauma and youth crime to substance abuse and homelessness. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when multiple menaces to our society have come to the surface, the need for the public system to press for better protection of domestic abuse victims is more urgent than ever.
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