For women with an abusive partner, a pandemic heightens the risk of assault

Try to imagine what happens when a household includes an abusive person who is cooped up, is frightened about the coronavirus, and is out of control

NEWFANE — April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, part of an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and sexual violence. It's not a month of celebration, but one of education about both the prevalence of sexual violence and about ways to prevent it.

Our plans to host a writing workshop for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories has been postponed, as has the public reading we were to hold next week. This column was originally going to be about how to receive a story of abuse.

Instead, I want to raise your awareness about how stay-at-home and shelter-in-place measures to protect all of us from the coronavirus pandemic put victims of domestic and sexual violence at increased risk.

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If it's hard for happy families to adjust to working, schooling, and playing at home 24/7 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, try to imagine what happens when that household includes an abusive person who is cooped up, is frightened about the virus, and is out of control.

This is not a fabricated scenario.

Even without a stay-at-home order, more than 1 in 3 women in the U.S. has experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a current or former partner or spouse, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The report makes clear that people of any gender can experience abuse, but women are most vulnerable.)

Generally, when abusers feel a loss of power or control, they become more dangerous. A frightened partner could forbid a nurse, grocery clerk, dispatcher, or pharmacist from going to work or could threaten to lock her out of her home until the pandemic is over if she defies such a command. What happens to her children in the meantime? Where would she live? What would happen to her job if she stays home? To her?

These already vulnerable women - and their children - are now shut in with their abusers day and night. It's near impossible for them to make a phone call, let alone leave - to go where? And even if we are neighbors and are aware of what goes on behind their closed doors, what can we do?

If a person can make a phone call, she can find help at the Women's Freedom Center 24-hour hotline: 802-254-6954. Maybe she sees her chance 6 feet from you in the checkout lane and asks to use your phone.

How will you respond?

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According to Shari, a community outreach coordinator at the Women's Freedom Center in Brattleboro, “Survivors of domestic violence already tend to be isolated. The pandemic makes their isolation more extreme. But we're here, and all our services are in place. We have safe ways to shelter people, to help them access the court system, or help them escape.”

The Women's Freedom Center is committed to supporting survivors of all genders who have experienced domestic or sexual violence. And the center has adjusted - and even expanded - all its programming to meet the constraints and challenges of the current pandemic.

A weekly support group is now meeting remotely Monday through Friday from noon to 1 p.m. All self-identified women who have experienced domestic violence can participate by audio or videoconference, depending on the technology available to them. Call the hotline for instructions to join the conversation: 802-254-6954.

And when it's safe for all of us to venture into our public spaces again, we'll reschedule Telling Our Stories, and tell our stories of survival.

Because the first step to ending sexual and domestic violence is to know that it happens.

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