The Shadow Pandemic: Domestic Violence Intensifies During COVID-19

By Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW

Angelo McClain

Several years ago, I attended an event at the Veterans Administration celebrating 90 years of social work at the VA. I wore a white ribbon on my lapel, signifying my commitment to be part of the solution for ending domestic and sexual violence against women. During my remarks, I was asked the significance of the white ribbon. When I explained, the VA social work leadership team indicated they wanted the VA to participate in the next international White Ribbon Campaign.

Last October, the VA launched its inaugural White Ribbon VA campaign with participation from 100 of its medical centers across the country. Thousands of VA employees, veterans and community members took the pledge to be part of the solution for ending domestic and sexual violence.

During the pandemic, I have been concerned about the rise in domestic violence cases. According to the National Commission on COVID-19 Criminal Justice (NCCCJ), domestic violence increased in the U.S. by 8.1 percent during the pandemic. Analysis from NCCCJ found that the rise is likely due to economic stress and lockdowns. The tension created by prolonged seclusion in lockdown, along with economic issues like unemployment, financial insecurity, and stress from child care and homeschooling have exacerbated domestic violence risk factors.

Unhealthy coping strategies, including perpetrators’ increased use of alcohol and other substances—which is often a precursor to abusive behavior—also are thought to have raised the risk of abuse. Other factors, such as a victim’s inability to access law enforcement and delays in the criminal justice system, have led to perpetrators enjoying widespread impunity.

Lockdowns have “trapped” more survivors with their abusers and made it more difficult to report incidents or have others intervene, creating what the United Nations refers to as the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women. The rise in cases has brought an increased demand for safe homes and shelters.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women. Studies show that between 22 percent and 57 percent of homelessness among women is caused by domestic violence. More than 90 percent of homeless women experience severe physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Survivors of domestic violence often must flee their homes to escape life-threatening violence from an abuser. Securing safe, affordable housing is a crucial step on the pathway to a survivor’s long-term security and often means the difference between being able to leave, and having no choice but to stay.

Emergency shelters often are the first step for survivors fleeing abuse, so they must have the resources to keep space available for victims. Transitional housing programs help survivors and their families rebuild their lives after fleeing abuse. Eighty-four percent of survivors in domestic violence shelters report that they need help finding affordable housing.

Policymakers must prioritize understanding the impacts of the pandemic and providing additional resources for domestic violence prevention and services for survivors.

Contact Angelo McClain at