The Baldy Center Magazine.


A Double Pandemic: Domestic Violence During COVID-19

Women share many struggles and challenges, as is demonstrated by the #Metoo movement and the prevalence of violence as a structural human rights and public health issue. Photograph courtesy of Canva.

Published September 23, 2020

Keywords: Cultural Studies, COVID-19, Culture and Society, Gender, Law and Society, Human Rights, Civil Rights, Inequality, Social Justice and Social Change.

Title: A Double Pandemic — Domestic Violence During COVID-19
Article by: Aldiama Anthony

Filomena Critelli received a 2020-2021 Baldy Center Research Grant, “#MeToo and the Implementation of Sexual Harassment Legislation in Pakistan: Moving from Law to Practice.” Dr. Critelli is an Associate Professor in UB’s School of Social Work. She is an activist and researcher of the human rights of women, children, and immigrants. Aldiama Anthony of the Baldy Center interviewed Dr. Critelli to learn more about Critelli’s research and her thoughts about the “double pandemic,” the spike in gender-based domestic violence cases amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Filomena Critelli.

Filomena Critelli

Tell us about yourself.

I am a Buffalo native. I went to the University at Buffalo for my Master's in Social Work. Then I lived in New York for about 27 years. That's where I did a lot of my work around violence against women and domestic violence. Later, I got my Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University at Albany and took an academic position at UB, which brought me back to Western New York.

What inspired you to focus on domestic violence?

When I attended college in New York, the second wave of the feminist movement, focusing on issues of gender inequality and the many forms of discrimination against women, was burgeoning. At that time, the issue of domestic violence was an "invisible" yet pervasive rights violation. As an impressionable 18-year-old, I realized early on that things didn't change because people in power just decided to change them; rather, you have to go and fight for them. The women's movement embraced that struggle, so I first got involved in doing volunteer work, and my activism and professional commitment emerged from that point in my life.

How did your activism grow while you lived in New York?

I began working in the field of child welfare, where violence against women and children was a pressing issue. Then, I started one of the first hospital-based violence prevention programs in New York City at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, which is located in a large immigrant community in Northern Manhattan. The program aimed to provide services to rape, domestic violence, and sexual abuse survivors. This experience further solidified my interest in addressing gender-based violence, and it has shaped my research agenda now that I am in academia. Later, I was running a large youth development program where there were kids from all over the world. This, combined with my experience with the rape crisis program, broadened my perspective to think globally about the issue of gender-based violence - about some of the structural barriers, cultural issues, issues of being an immigrant, and how to look at issues cross-culturally.

How has your activism developed into your passion for research?

I realized how important it is to have a broader global and intersectional lens in understanding domestic violence issues. Academia has enabled me to pursue my goal of conducting research internationally and to pursue the interests that developed in the context of my social work practice experience. I have focused primarily on gender-based violence in Pakistan and here in the U.S. I have also researched the barriers experienced by immigrants and refugees who are survivors of such violence in Buffalo. Recently, I received a Baldy Center grant to continue my research in Pakistan with a study on the implementation of sexual harassment legislation in Pakistan and the impact of the #MeToo movement.

Can you describe the research you have conducted in Pakistan? What are the biggest takeaways from your research?

I became interested in understanding how women were organizing against gender-based violence in that context. I had traveled to Pakistan and was struck with the work that women's organizations were doing there and realized that there was little information about it here in the West and that most representations of women in Pakistan were stereotypical and one-dimensional. Since then, I have been researching some of the different strategies that are used there and some of the different organizations that are working to address gender-based violence and discrimination, and empowering women.

The most exciting thing that I discovered was that in Pakistan, the women’s movement to address gender-based violence emerged from the Human Rights Movement and has been organizing since the 1970s. They were asserting that women’s rights are human rights very early on and applying a human rights framework to understand violence against women, which I really embrace. I believe that it is a framework that should be applied to a greater degree here in the U.S.

Another important takeaway is that as women, we share many struggles and challenges, as is demonstrated by the #MeToo movement and the prevalence of violence as a structural human rights and public health issue.

However, my biggest takeaway is that just passing a law does not automatically make things change. There has to be some work at the societal and governmental levels to change patriarchal values, remove structural barriers, and implement the laws that hold people accountable. We see that in many places, including the U.S., it's tough to make the change needed and that there has to be advocacy for macro-level changes in addition to services to assist survivors. One drawback in Pakistan is that it doesn't have an excellent track record in terms of implementing laws, and women’s organizations are organizing and protesting to change this. Laws against honor crimes and domestic violence have passed, and it has begun to result in some prosecutions, but it took several years to get there.

Women share many struggles and challenges, as is demonstrated by the #MeToo movement and the prevalence of violence as a structural human rights and public health issue.

"Women share many struggles and challenges, as is demonstrated by the #Metoo movement and the prevalence of violence as a structural human rights and public health issue." —Filomena Critelli  

How effective is technology, based on your research in Pakistan? What alternatives are there?

Technology has been helpful on multiple levels. It has made it possible to stay in contact with people and have access to more information and networks. Many people have phones in Pakistan, so technology is critical to sharing information about women's rights and helping women to get connected to assistance and support.

Remote areas continue to remain affected by the lack of technology. However, I had heard incredible stories about how women in remote villages learned about the women’s shelter where I conducted research. One woman saw a piece on TV and traveled to Lahore with the name of the director of the shelter on a piece of paper. In some instances, local lawyers have played a crucial role because they have created a network that helps give information from a legal framework standpoint.

What is your overall assessment of the global pandemic and its effects on gender-based violence in 2020?

The global pandemic has exposed both the structural inequalities and the gaps in the protection of our human rights for so many. Not only has it revealed the vulnerability of women in situations of gender-based violence, but it has also revealed the vulnerabilities of so many different groups who are disproportionately impacted. The pandemic has exacerbated incredible economic disparities, and I believe that these economic tensions play a contributing role in the rise of reports of gender-based violence during the pandemic. The fact that people are socially isolated is another significant issue affecting the spike in domestic violence, because they are limited in their social contacts, and it is more difficult for women to seek services while they are sheltered at home in situations of abuse. Isolation is a technique that abusers use to prey on their victims—it is all about power and control. 

There is a need to look intersectionally here. For example, women with limited English skills, lack of access to technology, or those who are undocumented immigrants are already isolated and fearful of getting services. Now, many of the avenues to help have shifted. As a result, the isolation is used as leverage to further abusive agendas.

What services do you think can be provided to curb the spike of domestic violence amidst the global pandemic?

I think that organizations are being creative and have tried to step up during the global pandemic. Almost every organization updated its website to include information about what to do, how to get an order of protection, and other information relating to the courts and procedures. There has been a move toward telecounseling and working remotely, but it is more challenging to reach people, and fear of COVID-19 makes it difficult for women to feel comfortable accessing services such as shelters.

Organizations have also developed silent chat services. Women who do not have many resources and who live in crowded places may find it hard to have the privacy to reach out. So, these silent chats are extremely useful. Organizations also provide options where people can exit from their website quickly if someone is coming into the room.

Of course, these are only a few examples of the innovative ways that services are offered. Speaking generally, the pandemic forced organizations to think and to develop many more creative ways to reach people and ensure that safety information is accessible. It has been challenging for the providers and the clients, but they have really tried to address the added challenges.

Do you believe COVID-19 has set the clock back on domestic violence?

Not necessarily, crisis creates opportunities to see things differently. I see COVID-19 as something that has helped to show us the way forward and what we need to do as a society. I hope that, when the pandemic is over and there is hopefully a new administration, we do not just go back to "normal." Instead, this experience will help us think a little more about the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups, and how we can move forward as a society seeking to address the structural inequalities that have become even more glaring. The pandemic is showing us where we need to pay attention and the precariousness of rights and social protections for many people. The expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is an example of how people have had the time to take it all in and purposefully organize around the issues affecting the Black community, which is also being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. That, to me, is a positive thing that came out of the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic! I hope to see to see this mass movement continue to grow and hope that we do not lose momentum.

Aldiama Anthony is an international student from the Commonwealth of Dominica, currently in her third year of law school at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Her interest in law began during her undergraduate studies at Monroe College, where she completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice with summa cum laude honors. Ms. Anthony is currently the 2020-2021 BLSA president of her law school’s chapter, the Honorary Law Student of the Women’s Bar Association of Western New York, and the Parliamentarian for the Student Bar Association at the University at Buffalo School of Law. 

Filomena Critelli, PhD, is Associate Professor in UB’s School of Social Work and a 2020-2021 Baldy Center research grant recipient. Critelli is the Co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Global Engagement at the University at Buffalo, which promotes cross-national research projects, globally focused research that advances trauma-informed and human rights perspectives, and international scholarly exchanges. Her professional and research interests focus on gender-based violence in domestic and global contexts; global migration, human rights of women, children, and migrants; the intersection of trauma and human rights; global social work and social welfare. Learn more.