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The Shadow Pandemic

Domestic violence against women peaked to record levels during the pandemic as COVID-19 forced the nation into lockdown and imposed heavy restrictions to help reduce the risk of exposure, unaware of the harmful impact it would have on women around the world.

In a webinar live-streamed by The Washington Post during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Rosie Hidalgo, senior advisor on gender-based violence for the White House Gender Policy Council, and Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, discussed specific risk factors that contributed to the upward trend of domestic violence cases, the role social media plays and how public policy responses change the way survivors receive care.

Hidalgo acknowledged that domestic violence was prevalent even before the pandemic, but said risk factors were intensified in many ways during the pandemic. She focused on how additional barriers and challenges in receiving aid due to COVID-19 made it more difficult for women.

Hidalgo called it a pandemic within a pandemic, or as the webinar called it, "a shadow pandemic." She said, "Thankfully, it has been an opportunity to bring more focus and really continue to enhance our nation's commitment to prevent and improve the response to domestic violence and all forms of gender-based violence."

Hidalgo explained that one way people experience domestic abuse is by being isolated by their abuser. When people had to isolate at home during quarantines and even afterward to avoid catching COVID, "It made it so much harder for individuals to be able to seek safety and support," she said.

Support networks were increasingly difficult to access as people worked from home, and children could no longer attend school in person. It was also hard for individuals wanting to leave an abusive environment to find housing or shelter. Alternatives such as staying with family or friends were no longer available.

"Even domestic violence shelters struggled with the challenges of congregate living," Hidalgo said. She said many of them pondered how to keep survivors safe, and some focused on trying to get extra funding for vouchers so that people could stay in hotels and avoid unnecessary contact with other families.

Even trying to get proper help from courts was increasingly challenging for victims as many opted for tele-proceedings. "It made it much more difficult for survivors to go in for example, and seek an order of protection," Hidalgo said.

Another factor was economic security. Hidalgo said risks can increase for women who are facing economic barriers. Loss of employment and reduced options to finish their work, especially for in-person jobs such as restaurants and hotels, disproportionally impacted women during the pandemic.

Inadequate wages and access to child care and health care were further exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo called for taking a more holistic approach in responding to cases of domestic abuse.

She said, "Overall, our nation's commitment to really address this and certainly the commitment of the Biden-Harris administration to make this a priority, has made a significant impact ... to better address these issues, not only during the pandemic but going forward."

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized this year. Congress' renewing the law every five years is an opportunity to "identify gaps and barriers, see where progress has been made, but continue to see where we can improve" VAWA and related laws, she said.

With bipartisan support, VAWA was expanded to help strengthen support for victims. It reauthorized important grant programs that reach all 56 states and territories. The grant programs extend to underserved and historically marginalized communities such as tribal communities, ethnic minority communities as well as LGBTQ and disabled individuals.

In the second segment of the discussion, Vagins discussed the role social media plays in domestic abuse cases.

Vagins called tech abuse a pervasive problem that accompanies physical, emotional, or financial abuse. "At its root, it is the misuse of technology to exert power and control over another person," she said.

Tech abuse can include things like threatening and hateful comments on online platforms, sending threatening text messages, sharing sexual images without consent, stalking, and creating fake sexually explicit images.

Vagins said tech abuse tactics that became more prominent during the pandemic will not be going away anytime soon.

In a survey conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, over 1,000 victim service providers shared ways in which types of tech abuse were used the most on victims. Most common were online harassment, people limiting access to technology while stuck with their abusers, and surveillance of their technology.

While technology advances, abusive behavior does too, Vagins said.

Vagins noted that financial abuse intersects with tech abuse, including "online banking fraud, getting access to people's passwords or bank accounts, depleting bank accounts online, limiting access to folks' ability to access their own accounts. All of this can be done through technology." Abusers weaponize this as another way to gain control over their victims.

Vagins emphasized how technology acts as a double-edged sword. While it can be used by abusers to bring harm and cause fear, survivors can also use it to connect with support services. "We have to look at tech abuse, but we have to look at the empowered use of technology to assist survivors in their path to safety and healing," she said.

To prevent online abuse, Vagins favors increasing access to technical experts to help survivors and advocates prove cases of tech‑facilitated abuse.

Regarding VAWA, Vagins noted that it now includes a federal civil cause of action to offer more options for survivors when there are non‑consensual distributions of intimate images. She called for "more investment by the administration in legal services so that people have more access to help."

Vagins emphasized the need for the Biden administration to support culturally specific approaches and responses to abuse shared by the intersectional needs of survivors.

"People of color, survivors of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, for example, all experience significantly higher rates of online harassment and are targeted with violent threats that often are racialized and sexualized in nature, and we need to make sure that we are investing in all communities," she said

Another federal law now up for reauthorization is the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which would provide funds for domestic violence prevention.

She said, "We really hope that Congress reauthorizes that legislation soon, and there are lots of economic justice pieces of legislation that survivors need so that they can rebuild their lives, from pay equity to living wages, paid sick and safe days, very important stuff out there so that survivors can reach safety and stay safe."


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