LONDON - Fears that those affected by domestic violence may be unable to seek help because they are locked in with their abusers during the coronavirus pandemic have prompted governments in several European countries to come up with new ways to help them.
The French government has encouraged victims to discreetly seek help at pharmacies, while the Italian government has launched a new app that will enable them to ask for help without making a phone call.
France, which has been on lockdown since March 17, has already seen a spike in domestic violence. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said last week there was a 32 percent increase in police interventions nationally, and a 36 percent increase in Paris, the capital city.
He said that victims could now discreetly seek help at pharmacies which have remained open during the country’s lockdown. Pharmacists would then inform the police.
The government also promised to subsidize thousands of hotel rooms where victims can quarantine in safety and on Tuesday, French Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa urged victims to take them up on the offer.
“There is a danger outside — it's the COVID-19 pandemic — but when you have a danger inside, you have someone who humiliates you, who strikes you, sometimes rapes you, assaults you, threatens you with death, obviously you have the right to go out,” she said.
While there are no official statistics in Italy where the lockdown has been in place for three weeks, on a more anecdotal level, organizations like Eva Cooperativa, an association that provides support to abused women, told NBC News they had been inundated with emails and WhatsApp messages from victims.
Many victims felt unable to call because they were being watched by their abusers, said Lella Paladino, the president of the group.
“Women, stuck in their own homes, are facing serious trouble and asking for help,” Paladino said.
More violent episodes were likely as victims were constantly trapped at home with their abusers because of the lockdown imposed by the Italian government in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, she added.
“We seriously fear that a lot of violence is being perpetrated at the moment,” said Maria Gabriella Carnieri, the president of Telefono Rosa, a government-run organization that helps women who suffer from domestic abuse.
Her colleague, psychologist Eliana D’Ascoli, said she talked to women who did find a way to call. Many waited until they were in the shower or out getting groceries because they were too afraid to be heard pleading for help in their own homes, she said.
“They contact me for psychological support, to let off steam and survive during this period of forced cohabitation,” she said, adding that children also called when they “realized they were living in violent families.”
As a result, the Italian government has launched an app that will allow women to ask for help from the police without making a phone call.
Called "YouPol", Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said it had been adapted from an app that was originally used by teenage victims of bullying.
The government is also considering a proposal to allocate 4 million euros ($4.4 million) for shelters to house abused women as part of its emergency decree to deal with the virus.
Meanwhile, rights groups disputed claims by police officials in Spain that the number of spousal abuse cases have dropped by 40 percent since the nation's lockdown began March 14.
Gregorio Gomez Mata, co-founder of the Madrid-based ALMA association, which helps victims of gender violence, said fewer calls and reports did not mean that domestic violence rates had dropped.
“What we are seeing instead is a drop in the number of reports, which is normal under these circumstances when the abusive person has the victim totally under control at home,” he said, adding that he was concerned the situation would get worse if the lockdown stayed in place for months.
“Cases, not only of abuse but also murder, will surely increase because the frustration resulting from the prolonged lockdown will make an abusive partner even more violent,” he added.
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Domestic violence also hit the headlines in the United Kingdom when boxer Billy Joe Saunders was forced to apologize Sunday after he posted a video on social media advising men how to hit their partners during the lockdown.
He was later stripped of his boxing license by the British Boxing Board of Control.
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, also urged people experiencing domestic violence to seek help. Her husband, Prince Charles, came out of self-isolation this week after testing positive for the respiratory illness.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel has also said that lockdown measures can make domestic violence victims “especially isolated, vulnerable and exposed.”
While she said she had not forgotten the victims, she warned abusers: “You will not get away with your crimes.”
Lidia Sirna reported from Rome, Hernan Muñoz Ratto from Barcelona, Nancy Ing from Paris and Yuliya Talmazan from London.