Domestic violence during coronavirus proves hard work for organizations

“The pressure of being together in close quarters, in addition to added economic pressures and fears of survival, are leading to increased stress and reducing people’s ability to let things slide."

Domestic violence (Illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Domestic violence (Illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
While I’m talking with Yael Gold, executive director of the nonprofit organization No2Violence, she receives a message on her phone about a woman and her baby who have been experiencing violence at home. In the meantime, the woman has fled her home and is on her way to the shelter. Another woman, Gold tells me, who is pregnant and has a toddler, also arrived at the shelter a few days ago.
“This is what happens when we are forced to spend too much time together in close quarters under very stressful circumstances. And as time goes on, and the quarantine continues, it’s only going to get worse,” Gold adds with a serious look.
Since COVID-19 began spreading in Israel, and especially after we’d been required to stay within 100 meters of our homes, everyone in the country has for weeks been required to stay closed up at home with the other members of their household 24/7.
This is especially difficult for families where violence has already been a part of their daily existence. Now that almost overnight life has become exponentially more stressful, the incidence of domestic violence is quickly growing.
“The pressure of being together in close quarters, in addition to added economic pressures and fears of survival, are leading to increased stress and reducing people’s ability to let things slide and engage in restraint,” Gold continues. “We’ve received hundreds of calls to our hotline in the last few weeks. We’ve added as many volunteers to answer calls as we can.”
“But because everyone is stuck at home around the clock, many women cannot find even the minute of privacy that’s necessary to call us and ask for help and to receive help over the phone. It’s almost like they’re imprisoned in their own home.
“We always have a rise in the number of calls after holidays when people spend a lot of time together. And now that this period of tension is stretching on and on, we expect even more women to require assistance.”
Is this an issue only for families who’ve experienced violence in the past?
“No, it can also happen in families where there was a bit of tension beforehand. In these cases, the home becomes a pressure cooker, with no healthy way to relieve the stress. People are becoming frustrated even quicker than normal, and situations that used to blow over can now quickly turn into violent controversies. For families that are more relaxed and resilient, these stressful situations usually do not escalate to violence.”
What do women usually talk about when they call the hotline?
“They don’t often connect the change with the COVID-19 epidemic, but they do talk about a sudden lack of money and how their husband is so nervous now that he’s home all the time. They’re extremely frightened.”
What can you do to help them?
“Well, our resources are pretty limited. The state welfare agencies are working day and night to help with emergency situations. There are shelters, and 24/7 hotlines where they can call and have someone to talk to and hopefully to help calm them down. We can also refer them to specific organizations so that they can receive help. Every day more women are showing up at shelters.
“Once the quarantine is over, I expect many more women to flock to shelters, since at the present time they have no opportunity to make a call or arrangements to leave while their partner is home with them all day long. These days, there’s less crime out on the streets, but much more at home.”
“People are scared and tense, and unsure of what the future holds,” explains attorney Tzilit Jacobson, chairwoman of Bat Melech, which aids religious and haredi women dealing with domestic violence.
“Even people who live in relatively normative situations are currently experiencing extra stress these days. When people have a healthy and well-functioning relationship with each other, it’s easier to ride the waves until the waters calm down. However, when they’ve already experienced bouts of violence in normal times, the level of violence usually grows during crisis periods. People become more obsessive, jealousies arise and threats often lead to violence. For women who already felt like they needed to walk on eggshells around their spouse, now violence pervades every interaction.”
Has the Bat Melech hotline been receiving more phone calls than normal?
“Yes. I’d say about three times as many women in distress have been calling the emergency hotline lately. We’ve added volunteers, but it’s still not enough,” continues Jacobson. “In normal times, one or both spouses go out to work, and everyone is together at home only a few hours a day. People used to be out at their jobs making money, going about their daily activities and not getting in each other’s hair all day long. Many women feel like they’re being suffocated, with little time to reach out for support from family and close friends. The more out of control the men feel, the more they try to control their wives and kids, and then the situation can quickly spiral out of control.
“When we talk with women who call into the hotline, we try to bolster their sense of self-worth and help them feel stronger. If we have the impression that a woman is in a potentially dangerous situation, we will offer her resources where she can seek professional help. I would like to call out to all the women out there – even if you are feeling lonely while stuck at home during this epidemic, you are not alone. We are here, and there are also the police and the welfare services.” (Information on hotline:
So how can someone call the hotline discreetly, now that everyone is home all day and night?
“They can call when they take out the garbage, or bring the phone with them into the bathroom,” explains Jacobson. “The most important thing is that women should know that they are not alone – there’s always a way to make a call. Not everyone calling the hotline is in need of escaping to a shelter, but it is crucial to us to verify the level of danger each woman is experiencing, especially because of the complex reality we find ourselves in now. We recommend that women share what’s going on with them with their friends, family members and social workers. They do not need to go through this all on their own.”
“I’ve been receiving about 50 messages a day recently, whereas before the COVID-19 crisis, it would be only about 15 each day,” says Miri Sa’ar, founder of Tikvah Bachoshech (Hope in the Dark), which offers assistance to young women and men who suffer from sexual and physical abuse by family members, and aims to increase public awareness of this problem. “People mostly find us on Facebook. About 80% of the messages come from girls and the other 20% from boys. The stories we’ve been hearing these last few weeks have been even more heartbreakingly sad than usual.”
Can you provide an example?
“One teen, who recently found a job after succeeding in weaning herself off drugs and leaving her parents’ home, where she was being sexually abused, has unfortunately been put on unpaid leave from her job, and so has been forced to return to live with her parents since she has no money left,” explains Sa’ar. “Since everyone is stuck home all day, there is increased domestic violence. This young woman says that she doesn’t remember there ever being such a high level of stress at home, and she is desperate to find an alternate place to live.
“Another girl who’s been in touch with us on an ongoing basis stopped calling or corresponding with us, and I can’t seem to locate her. So many young people have been forced out onto the streets due to violence at home. It’s very hard for us to help them when we can’t find them. I’d love to offer them coaching or refer them to welfare services, because everyone deserves to have a safe place to sleep at night.”
“There are so many instances of intrafamilial sexual abuse by a family member or by someone the victims know well,” adds Orit Solitziano, director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. “Our hotlines are available 24/7, but phone calls about abuse by family members will mostly not be made now when everyone is in the thick of it. Only after the COVID-19 crisis has dissipated will we begin to receive the avalanche of phone calls. We saw a similar phenomenon after the Gulf War ended, as well as after Operation Protective Edge. We are preparing our volunteers for the barrage of calls that will come very soon.”
“Normally, our hotline is available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but since the COVID-19 epidemic began, we’ve been able to extend the hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. All of our volunteers who answer the phone calls are men,” explains Avi Mor, a family therapist who runs the WIZO hotline for men, which assists men who are abusers or victims of domestic violence.
“The tension, fear and uncertainty of the times are leading to impatience and outbursts of anger. We recommend that men call us to talk about what’s going on with them – the financial worries, the uncertainty of what might happen in the future, how to handle life with kids at home all day long, and any tension between spouses that can easily spiral out of control. Once someone talks about the things that are worrying them, they begin to feel much better and as a result, they are much less liable to have violent outbursts when dealing with stressful situations.
“By the way – we also receive phone calls from women asking how to deal with their violent husbands, brothers, or fathers. Of course, our hotline is completely confidential and anonymous.”
What do men usually talk about when they call?
“Many men call and tell us that they’re worried they’re going to lose control and hurt their spouse or children when they get angry, that being home all day and night has been really difficult for them,” Mor continues.“Some say they’re worried this behavior will continue even after the COVID-19 epidemic is over. We also had two young men – one a soldier and another who’s doing national service – both of whom described how nervous they are thinking about the tension between their parents, which is worse when they’re not home.
“Many women have called us asking how they can convince their husbands to call our hotline for advice. We’ve received over 20 calls just today from men, and another 20 from family members asking for advice about their husband or dad. This is about twice as many calls as the average number in normal times. Most cases don’t lead to murder – that’s an extreme and rare occurrence, and we do everything in our power not to let issues spiral into untenable situations. A good portion of the violence is psychological, emotional and verbal, as well as financial. Of course, now many people have been put on unpaid leave and are extremely worried about finances, which even in normal times often leads to fighting among spouses.”
“There is also a small number of cases,” Mor adds, “where the woman is the abuser. In these cases, the abuse is usually verbal, where the wife talks down to her husband and makes him feel worthless. Men don’t know how to react to this type of talk, and we try to help them not to fall into depression or to react with violence. During these difficult times, we’ve also been seeing violence among couples who’ve never experienced this type of behavior in the past – situational violence.”
How do you instruct your volunteers to handle incoming calls?
“The most essential thing is to listen to the people calling in. Just listen. We also try to convince them to give us their phone number so we can keep in touch with them to check how they’re doing. Over the last few days, I’d say about half of the people who’ve called in have agreed to give us their phone number. We then decide together with the caller when would be a good time for us to call to see how they’ve been doing. Our goal is to help them manage their emotions and channel their anger – to help them recognize when they’re reaching a boiling point, so that they can learn to catch themselves before they lash out verbally and physically.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.