With domestic violence rising amid COVID-19, what will the gov't do?

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: ‘You ignore some of the warning signs’

ACTIVISTS PROTEST against recent cases of violence against women at Habima Square in Tel Aviv last week. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
ACTIVISTS PROTEST against recent cases of violence against women at Habima Square in Tel Aviv last week.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Two women were murdered within a couple of hours of each other last week. Another murder was attempted a few days later. All three of them were cases of domestic abuse.
Almost 20 women have been murdered by their partners in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic. In contrast, 13 women were killed in cases of domestic violence in 2019 altogether. Women’s shelters are filled to the brim, and calls to support hotlines have increased exponentially.
Does the government realize there’s a problem?
“We have had discussions about this in the presence of governmental ministries,” said Oded Forer (Yisrael Beytenu), the head of the Committee on the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality. “Sadly, the government does not emphasize the social impact of the lockdown and limitations in any way.”
Lockdown, in fact, has had a direct impact on the rise in domestic abuse throughout the country. When families are locked together in situations of tension and pressure, every relationship intensifies and can often turn violent within a “pressure cooker,” as Forer called it.
“A million people were left without jobs in Israel – and even that’s debatable because they do not count independent businesses – and these families are in financial distress,” said Rivka Neumann, director of WIZO’s Division for the Advancement of Women.
Her department manages the women’s shelters run by the organization throughout the country, in addition to a number of programs for the treatment and prevention of domestic abuse.
“On top of the uncertainty and the fear of the illness, there are people left in poverty. Their chances of finding a job are low,” she said. “Parents who cannot leave their young children alone at home must decide – at a time like this when it’s so important for someone to work – between work and their children. If you choose your children, you will either be fired or released on unpaid leave.”
Such financial tensions can lead to outbreaks of aggression.
The direct source of the abuse, of course, is not the circumstances but the abusers themselves. However, the government has not supported or funded treatment for them.
“We want an initiative in the Knesset to send men to therapy,” Anita Friedman, chairwoman of World WIZO, told The Jerusalem Post. “This is a societal problem. It’s not a women’s issue. Unless we change the way that we see this and take care of it the way it should be taken care of, we cannot see it changing.”
World WIZO chairperson Anita Friedman
THE BIG government rollout plan to tackle domestic abuse was launched in 2017 and dictated that throughout the five years following the launch, the government would allocate a total of NIS 250 million to programs aimed at battling the abuse. It is 2020. Only NIS 50m. has been allocated to the project.
One program that could have been funded if the budget had been allocated would have been proper education on abuse. One such initiative by WIZO, according to Friedman, intends to teach people who come into regular contact with children how to recognize signs of abuse.
“We are trying to advance social education,” she explained. “People must understand that it is a societal issue. It is not a woman dealing with this by herself. This is an epidemic that touches everybody’s lives. We are talking about a million people in Israel.”
However, keeping children at home rather than having them sent to school may prevent outsiders from recognizing early warning signs of domestic abuse, even those who do receive proper training.
Meanwhile, the state refuses to even acknowledge the rise in domestic abuse as a symptom of the coronavirus.
When Public Security Minister Amir Ohana released his eight-part plan for police to overcome the struggles that have come with the virus, he did not mention domestic abuse once.
“It’s just a total, basic misunderstanding of the situation that we’re in,” Forer said. “It isn’t even on the table. At most, within 24 hours after a murder, they forget about it.”
Indeed, approximately 200,000 men have been reported currently in Israel as being domestic abusers. When this number is applied to a multitude of victims in the family, the number of victims is approximately one million.
Meanwhile, cases of abuse are being swept under the rug by the police.
N., WHO preferred to remain unnamed, was a victim of domestic abuse who received no help from the country.
“I met him at work,” she told the Post. “He brought me a bouquet of flowers, impressed me. I moved in with him. When you’re new in a home, you’re a bit shy. You ignore some of the warning signs. A blind love, they say.
“A year after we began living together, I got sick and had my ovaries removed. He began to do terrible things to me, teasing me, ‘Are you pregnant?’ when I cannot be. He would tell me that if it weren’t for him, I’d be homeless.”
She explained that once his sister moved in with N., the abuser and his family, she encouraged him to begin physically abusing N.
“It was an atomic pressure that suddenly, something could happen,” she explained. “Everyone became suspicious and violent. Near the end, they would call me the dirtiest words in the language. They told me that in the end, they’re going to put me in an asylum. They all sat around me and said that they would cut me into pieces and throw me in the ocean and no one would ever find me. That is when I asked my friend to help me get into a shelter.”
N. managed to sneak out of the house just as her abuser and his family, falling into a drugged sleep in the early hours of the morning, were not keeping an eye on her. Within a day of appearing at court, she was put in a women’s shelter. She found solace in the other women there, and felt that they had a strong bond, that they were all going through the same thing. Once she left, she managed to rent an apartment, but she had nothing but a small backpack with the most basic belongings.
“Four days, I sat there and thought my life was ending,” she said, stating that the owner of the apartment left only a couch there, and if he had not, she would have been sleeping on the floor.
Eventually, she was contacted by a woman from WIZO who offered to help her gather supplies. From that moment, people from far and wide were donating furniture, food and basic supplies to furnish her home.
But when N. went to the police, her complaint against her abuser fell through.
“They said my complaint wasn’t enough,” she said. “I told them that they [the abuser and his family] described in detail how they would kill me. The police told me that it wasn’t enough. I went to a lawyer. He said to leave him [the abuser] alone and that he could not help me.”
DESPITE DOMESTIC abuse being a killer in itself, no funding whatsoever has been funneled into what could be lifesaving treatment.
“They always say that the reason the government is managing the country this way is to avoid putting pressure on the hospitals,” Neumann said. “There are other countries whose health systems are absorbing [patients] well and they have kept [to their] routine. A catastrophe has been created.”
Preventative treatments do exist. WIZO runs a shelter for the prevention of domestic abuse, providing at-risk families with rehabilitative solutions to overcome their obstacles.
“We take care of the whole family before there is a case of violence,” Friedman said. “We also provide men who contact our men’s hotline with treatment, and afterward there is a support group for violent men. These centers have seen a rise of 200% of people coming and calling, but we cannot accommodate everyone unless we have support from the government to create more openings.”
A handful of abusers actually go to jail, but the punishment is oftentimes deemed as light in comparison to the accusations.
“There should be stricter punishment of abusive offenses,” Forer claimed, while Friedman explained that a law has been proposed but has not been advanced as of yet to have abusers marked with an electronic tag to make sure they do not break restraining orders and approach their victims.
N. offered a more direct approach to dealing with abusers.
“We go through this, we get to the shelter, and the men at the end are left as if nothing happened,” she said. “They continue working as if nothing happened, there was no event, there was no affair. They [the police] summoned [my abuser] a few times to interrogations, but he didn’t come, he kept on working. If there is a situation like this and the woman enters the shelter, why does the man not need to go through treatment?”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has had a very limiting effect on the resources available to victims of domestic abuse. For example, to enter a women’s shelter, families must first stay for two weeks in a national coronavirus shelter for abused women in order to prevent infection in the regular facilities. But the national coronavirus shelter alone, in the five months it has been open, has seen three times as many families as a regular shelter sees in an entire year.
“The coronavirus shelter is always full,” Neumann said. “We opened the shelter in cooperation with the government. Our agreement is until December of this year. If the government wants to extend, it will speak with us in November.”
And so, with the budget crisis in Israel reaching its peak due to the pandemic, victims of domestic abuse have been thrown aside. Every single government decision on lockdown is a decision on the conditions within which victims of abuse must live. And yet, at this time when domestic abuse has so dramatically increased within the given circumstances, no funding has been allocated for plans that could have saved the 20 women who died.
“We need the awareness of the public to make this a priority in society,” Friedman said. “If not, this is not going to be solved.”