Lockdown Violence: The unheard cries amidst global crises

Trigger Warning: The following article directly discusses the topic of domestic violence and partner abuse. Although the post aims to explain and inform the reader about the link between domestic violence and natural crises, the psymplified team is against any kind of violence, especially that rooted in abusive relationships. If you or someone you know are victims of abuse, please consult the list of resources linked here.


By this point, you’ve probably seen a bunch of posts on social media featuring black-and-white pictures of women with the hashtag “#challengeaccepted”. This trend has gone viral and captured the attention of major celebrity figures. However, there is debate around what the trend stands for in the first place.

If you were also wondering, we’ve got your back.

The #challengeaccepted trend started with black-and-white pictures posted by Turkish women with the tag #kadınaşiddetehayır (translation: “no violence to women”). The concept comes from the fact that Turkish women wake up every day and see the uncoloured pictures of their female peers in newspapers, who have been murdered by their partners in so-called “honour killings”. Pinar Gültekin, for example, made the headlines after being murdered by her ex-boyfriend less than a month ago. 

Screenshot from Instagram

While Turkey has struggled for years with increasing rates of femicides at the hands of their partners, it is hardly the only country where this type of crime is high. One in three women in the world has experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, most of which come from intimate partners.

During times of crisis such as natural disasters, wars, and epidemics, the risk of gender-based violence rises. Early data already shows a large increase in the reported cases across the world since the start of lockdown, with cases increasing between 25% and 40% in many countries.

Women are more likely to experience violence from an intimate partner or ex-partner than from a stranger. Taken from EIGE

Is the pandemic responsible for the increase of domestic abuse cases? Maybe. The lockdown has isolated victims from their support networks and resources. Economic uncertainty makes it even tougher for those who want to leave abusive relationships. The stress of not knowing what the future holds may also drive potential abusers closer to a tipping point.

You might also think that we are speculating. Well, yes and no. There is evidence that links the onset of natural crises with a rise in domestic abuse rates. This article focuses exactly on that: we will explain how situations similar to the current pandemic have become catalysts of intimate partner violence (IPV). However, to show this link we have to first look at the underlying psychological traits that may cause a person to become abusive.

Early Exposure to Violence

People don’t just wake up one day with the sudden urge to hurt the people close to them. It is almost always the combination of experiences, the environment, and individual traits that triggers their violent impulses.[1]

The interaction of these factors is explained by the social learning theory.[2] This model suggests that people evaluate behaviours based on their positive and negative consequences. When the positive outweighs the negative, the behaviour is reinforced.

The Social Learning Theory in a nutshell. Taken from PBWorks

Does this mean that domestic violence is perceived positively? No. What it means is that a child in an abusive setting may learn that aggression is an appropriate way to resolve conflicts. If a child observes or is exposed to physical abuse from a young age, it can lead them to adopt violent ways of expressing their feelings. This is why many adult abusers come from a family with a history of IPV.[3]

Such early exposure to domestic violence results in an inability to trust others, develop healthy relationships, and manage emotions.[4] When someone is unable to manage their stress in a healthy way, it reduces the their ability to keep their negative behaviours in check, leading to violence.

Mental Disorders

Social learning is not the only cause though: some mental disorders are also associated with IPV. Clinical diagnoses that include substance abuse typically involve loss of control, impulsive behaviour, and displacement of responsibility.[5]

IPV also differs depending on the sex of the abuser. In men, for instance, being emotionally dependent is strongly linked with violent behaviour.[6] This dependency often takes the form of possessiveness, which leads to threatening and guilt-shaming the assaulted partner. Moreover, emotionally-dependent men may become abusive in an attempt to regain control. This shows they are unable to manage their hurt feelings when faced with rejection.

Women, on the other hand, generally engage in IPV as self defence. This may be due to attempts to escape the abuse. Other motives of abusive women are feelings of uncontrollable anger, stress, depression, dissatisfaction with their partners’ behaviour, and restoring their image.[7]

Social Crises as Catalysts

As we mentioned earlier, crises make people lose control. To give a real life example, a lower socioeconomic status is a predictor of domestic violence.[3] This is because people (men in particular) who are in a tight financial position may resort to violence as a way of relieving their anxiety.[8] And what is particularly good at causing widespread financial instability? Natural disasters: reports of IPV surged after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, for instance.[9]

The aftermath of Hurricane Andrew wasn’t just geological and economical. Taken from NY Times

But, why do people resort to violence during times of hardship? The general strain theory tries to explain that. It links the increase in “inequity strains” (i.e. class gaps, poverty, etc.) to an increase in crime as a coping mechanism.[10,11] The COVID-19 pandemic has brought in such strains, together with a great deal of uncertainty. That, plus forced confinement can lead to negative emotional responses.[10]

IPV is not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic though. Other disasters in the past have also created uncertainty and struggles, which led to increases in domestic violence. This increase is also seen following a prolonged disaster.[12]

Family members in close proximity during situations of distress, including refugee camps, can also lead to an increase in domestic abuse. Taken from Al Jazeera

Health emergencies are also linked to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, mental health issues, and other risky behaviours. All of these ultimately lead to domestic violence.[13]

The problem with health emergencies, however, is that they greatly reduce the victim’s options; a violent partner can take away access to health services and support networks as a way to control their victims.[13,14] With changes in travel policies, women and children may be forced to find asylum in abusive settings and remain in them. Syria and Yemen, for instance, saw an increase IPV especially in the form of marital rape.[12]

Bottom Line

This article summarises some of the reasons behind IPV into internal factors and contextual factors. At an individual level, early exposure to violence, and pre-existing mental health conditions can set the stage for a potential abuser to engage in IPV. At a broader level, economic instability, and loss of control over one’s future become catalysts for the use of negative coping methods. In other words, people with unhealthy ways of relieving their stress will be more likely to hurt their partners in the onset of a crisis. 

Domestic Violence Awareness Month is October, but putting an end to it should be an ongoing process. Taken from Amberly’s Place

We don’t mean, however, that IPV can be reduced to just a combination of factors while disregarding its crippling effects on the victims. The stories of Pinar Gültekin and the thousands of Turkish women who became victims of “honour killings” are a testament of why we need to inform and be informed of the science behind abuse. Understanding why people may become abusive is the first step in tackling this global issue. 

However, identifying the reasons that explain why IPV increases during major crises does not justify it. In the end, each person is responsible for their reactions in difficult times. Learning about the potential triggers that lead to a violent response can (and should) enable them to take measures to prevent these responses. 

If this article reaches the eyes of someone who can use this knowledge to prevent harm, then we have done our part. 


Academic References

  1. Worden, A. P., & Carlson, B. E. (2005). Attitudes and beliefs about domestic violence: Results of a public opinion survey: II. Beliefs about causes. Journal of interpersonal violence, 20(10), 1219-1243
  2. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Carlson, B. E. (1984). Causes and maintenance of domestic violence: An ecological analysis. Social Service Review, 58(4), 569-587.
  4. Wolfe, D. A., & Jaffe, P. G. (1999). Emerging strategies in the prevention of domestic violence. The future of children, 133-144
  5. Gulati, G., & Kelly, B. D. (2020). Domestic violence against women and the COVID-19 pandemic: What is the role of psychiatry?. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 101594
  6. Bornstein, R. F. (2006). The complex relationship between dependency and domestic violence: Converging psychological factors and social forces. American psychologist, 61(6), 595.
  7. Elmquist, J., Hamel, J., Shorey, R. C., Labrecque, L., Ninnemann, A., & Stuart, G. L. (2014). Motivations for intimate partner violence in men and women arrested for domestic violence and court referred to batterer intervention programs. Partner abuse, 5(4), 359-374.
  8. Schneider, D., Harknett, K., & McLanahan, S. (2016). Intimate partner violence in the Great Recession. Demography, 53(2), 471-505.
  9. Gearhart, S., Perez-Patron, M., Hammond, T., Goldberg, D., Klein, A., & Horney, J. (2018). The Impact of Natural Disasters on Domestic Violence: An Analysis of Reports of Simple Assault in Florida (1999–2007).
  10. Piquero, A., Riddell, J., Bishopp, S., Narvey, C., Reid, J., & Piquero, N. (2020). Staying Home, Staying Safe? A Short-Term Analysis of COVID-19 on Dallas Domestic Violence. American Journal Of Criminal Justice, 45(4), 601-635
  11. Agnew, R. (2014). General Strain Theory. Encyclopedia Of Criminology And Criminal Justice, 1892-1900. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-5690-2_218
  12. WHO and VIP. Interpersonal Violence & Disasters. 2005. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/publications/violence/violence_disasters.pdf
  13. Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children. (2020). Retrieved 7 August 2020, from https://www.cgdev.org/publication/Pandemics-and-violence-against-women-and-children
  14. Schneider, D., Harknett, K., & McLanahan, S. (2016). Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession. Demography, 53(2), 471-505.

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