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SafeHouse Center SPEAKS OUT
Giving a voice to our survivors and advocates.

COVID-19: Home isn’t safe for everyone.

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

By Barbara Niess-May, SafeHouse Center Executive Director

Barbara Niess-May

In every community, COVID-19 poses additional threats for survivors of domestic violence.  With external factors of mass closures, record numbers of people not working or working from home and the tension of the unknown, stress can build and lead to increased incidences of domestic violence.

As well, the recommendation for social distancing parlays into the often used tactic by abusers of social isolation.  In our work with survivors, it has been our experience that assailants use social isolation to gain greater control over the survivor.   It often begins in subtle ways, but grows over time which minimizes any help a survivor can access and can have significant physical and mental health impacts.  Examples of social isolation include alienation from family and friends, endanger employment, turn children against the survivor, and eliminating their role in household decision making.  

And now, it is a government sanctioned practice.  Some behaviors assailants might have during this public health crisis include:

  • Minimizing or preventing survivors efforts to secure supplies
  • Using social distance as a means to further control and disconnect completely (no social media, phone use, etc.)
  • May try to convince that they have the virus, or that someone in the household has the virus and it’s the survivor’s fault
  • Assailant stating that police won’t respond because they are too busy with the public health crisis
  • Shelters and helplines aren’t available because “everybody is closed down.”
  • Survivors may not consider shelter for fear of being exposed to COVID-19.

And the list goes on.

Our program, and many programs nationwide, are struggling to balance public health needs with survivor needs.  Community support is CRITICAL at this time. We have fundraising events planned that won’t happen, which will lead to revenue losses.  Survivors will move out of shelter at a much slower rate because of not being able to secure income. Couple that with closures and businesses ramping down, housing not being available and social programs working with skeleton staff this is a social crisis.  The impact multiplies if the survivor is experiencing poverty, is an immigrant, or has multiple children.

We are hearing from survivors.  For example, a helpline call from a survivor whose husband is returning from overseas early and she doesn’t have time to implement her safety plan.  Another survivor who is wondering how long it will take to get a Personal Protection Order (PPO) because county and state offices are shutting down. The requests for help are complicated and don’t have easy answers.

We are learning from Italy and China that there could be a significant spike in requests for help and support from survivors of domestic violence because of the factors listed above.  Programs throughout the country are making difficult decisions to help and support survivors.  

Community support, financial and otherwise, will make an enormous difference in local program’s ability to support survivors through this public health crisis.   Making financial donations to programs will help fill gaps in planned fundraising revenue and assist with unexpected costs of addressing the unique needs of survivors.  Sharing with your networks that programs are available and open, and that you are someone that can be trusted to listen can be the needed support to someone in your circle experiencing domestic violence.  

Being educated about the impact of domestic violence and helping local programs help survivors will make a difference during this public health crisis.

In the last week southeastern Michigan has met with the news of sexual harassment and misconduct, with the subjects being Senator Peter Lucido, and University of Michigan Provost Martin Philbert. In the wake of the allegations and subsequent investigations, I have witnessed many conversations and questions surrounding these situations like the ones I listed above. Of course, facts do matter and due process is the right of the accused.

These sorts of statements minimize the person victimized and excuse this criminal behavior. As a community, we must start asking why those who commit these acts often move on with very few consequences. In these situations, the arc of justice is not quickly bending in favor of women. In a 2019 study conducted by the University of California-San Diego, it was noted that 81% of women surveyed experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. This includes unwelcome verbal, cyber, and physical sexual harassment in personal or professional situations. What is also shocking is the high number of incidences that occur in the workplace. Of those who had been harassed, 38% experienced it in the workplace. Sexual harassment is on the spectrum of violence against women, and is many times a starting place for further physical violence. And further, the reports of sexual harassment are a fraction of the actual incidences that occur daily in our country.

In most cases involving harassment, the perpetrator has or is about to assert power or authority over the victim. The power and authority is in relation to differences in social, political, educational or employment relationships as well as in age. Additionally, the perpetrator may be totally unaware that their behavior constitutes harassment or misconduct. However this does not excuse the behavior nor remove any accountability measures that must be taken. Comments like ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘I was complementing her’ are inappropriate because it is rooted with ill intent and taking away from company or organizational business.

Consider that these situations are not about flirtation, or political correctness, or anything close. These situations are on the spectrum of violence against women. Violence against women exists because women are valued less than men. Women earn less in the workplace, experience more workplace harassment, are less represented in the corporate world, hold a fraction of elected positions, and the list continues.

Violence against women is also about power and control. And, in the details that are available about Senator Lucido, he clearly sought to have control in the situation with the two women who have filed complaints. “Have(ing) fun with you” is not a casual remark. Placing a hand on the small of a woman’s back without consent, particularly for a long period of time, is inappropriate. It implies controlling her body and where it goes. It is yet to be known how Martin Philbert perpetuated sexual harassment, however it is likely to fall within the scope of the description of harassment above.

We must discontinue the abysmal response to those who have experienced harassment and end the culture of condoning violence and harassment against women. Workplace training and education on sexual harassment, developing safe and reasonable avenues for those victimized to report the harassment, along with holding perpetrators responsible are the best first steps organizations can take toward ending sexual harassment and misconduct.


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