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By Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
Note: This post is based upon a WATER Tea talk on May 5, 2020. You can listen to the conversation here: https://soundcloud.com/water-womens-alliance/may-5-2020-watertea
In this corona era, many local communities are reporting up to a 50% decrease in 911 calls in general but a 20% increase in domestic violence calls. There is no surprise here. When we first heard the news of orders to shelter in place, many of us immediately thought about what that would mean for women and children who are battered or sexually abused in their homes. Basically it meant being locked up with one’s abuser, having limited access to help from the outside, and limited opportunity to escape.
The coronavirus has not only exposed but also exacerbated the many issues faced by women and children in our society (and especially in communities of color)– not only the inequities of health care and the economy but also vulnerabilities to violence and abuse.
As we ponder what this means in our faith communities, I want to clarify one aspect of domestic violence that some commentators seem confused about. Some have suggested that the problem with DV in the midst of the virus shut down is that everyone is at home and under a lot of stress and that this will of course cause more violence.
Domestic violence is not caused by stress. It is a pattern of coercive control utilized by an abuser to control a victim. It may or may not include physical violence. But it is probably a pattern of behavior by an abuser set in place long before the corona virus arrived. The problem with being in lock down is that the abuser now has a 24/7 opportunity to control everything and everyone in the household and it is near impossible for victims to get away.
We are all living with more stress than ever before. That doesn’t mean that we are all abusive towards our partners or children. We may very well not be very nice or kind or thoughtful; we may get angry or frustrated. All of which is understandable if reprehensible. But domestic violence is another thing.
The abuser’s threats reflect the virus situation: “I’ll find a way to give you the virus so you will get sick.” “You can’t leave. The police will arrest you if you go out.” “If you try to leave or call for help, I’ll have you deported.” For kids who are being sexually abused, physically abused, and/or neglected, there are no outside eyes (such as teachers, youth leaders, clergy, coaches, extended family) to see the signs and hopefully intercede.
Let’s add a religious dimension to the problem. For example, since some religious groups are continuing to meet or are planning to resume services this week, the abuser will simply insist that his/her partner and children must attend even though it is dangerous to do so. Particularly in patriarchal households reinforced by religious teachings, the husband/father will continue to use these teachings to implement his control.
Our job as faith leaders is to remember that we are always addressing sexual and domestic violence on two levels. First, we must respond to the immediate needs of those being victimized, offering support and advocacy. But we must also realize that the violence against women and children remains a structural fact of life even as our context has changed. The fundamental foundations of patriarchy and racism continue to shape reality that lands hardest on the most vulnerable.
It is our job to continue to challenge these foundations and to do everything we can to interrupt the misuse of religious teaching and texts to reinforce these foundations. This is the job that only we can do and we must stay on point even as we collectively cope with a new normal.
Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and Founder of FaithTrust Institute. She is the author of numerous books including Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse, Is Nothing Sacred, and Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited