Domestic Violence and COVID-19 in The Netherlands: A Case of (Im)Possible Framing?
Contribution by: Diana Willemijn Helmich
A contribution by Diana Willemijn Helmich (Research Master's student Gender Studies, UU) for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis. This blogpost also builds upon the work undertaken by Tessel ten Zweege and forms a continuation of the blogposts Helmich and Ten Zweege wrote as part of the course “COVID-19 and Global Inequalities”, organized by Netherlands Research School of Gender Studies and the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law in the fall semester of 2020/2021.
Despite the initial framing of COVID-19 as “the great equalizer”, a rhetoric deployed to refer to the fact that no one is immune to the virus, the pandemic has demonstrated that people situated at the margins of society are disproportionately affected. Many people in the world have been confined to their home for over a year now, a situation which psychologists have warned can easily lead to a rise in tensions due to experiences of economic and social anxiety, stress, and increased alcohol consumption.
The Effect of Lockdown on Domestic Violence
Many NGOs such as UN Women have called for global attention to the fact that with enforced lockdowns, there is a serious call for the awareness of the risk of the potential increase of gender-based domestic violence (GBV). The mandate to stay at home in order to save lives has a tremendous impact on daily life. If someone is living with their abuser, and they have limited to no contact outside of their household, it becomes easier to consequently normalize abusive behaviour. The abuse can either be more difficult to recognise due to social isolation, or heightened tensions can be contextualised and “explained” through the increased stress caused by the global pandemic. Additionally, being in lockdown with your abuser also makes it more difficult to reach out for help due to constantly being in close proximity to the abuser.
The Dutch government (partly) echoes these warnings – but they do not explicitly highlight the gender-based dimension of domestic violence: they simply acknowledge that an increase of “domestic violence” is a dangerous risk of the lockdown.[i] Simultaneously, reports provided by the Dutch government (see here and here) claim that despite a notable global increase, there has not been an increase in reported cases nationally. This blogpost will challenge the Dutch reporting that (gender-based) domestic violence has not increased during lockdown. First, I will analyse the assumed exceptionality of the Netherlands. I argue that the framework that is used in the media to report on such statistics, as well as the legal and political framework, influences which cases can become visible and which remain invisible. Second, I question the method of how cases are reported and counted in the Netherlands.
One of the biggest issues in tackling violence in the private sphere is that it takes place in the private sphere. In a time where social contact with the outside world should be limited, it is more difficult to rely on outside sources to note something and report it.
The Netherlands: An Exception?
On June 24, 2020, the Ministry of Health, Wellbeing, and Sports published an article about the international increase of domestic violence during COVID-19 to emphasise both the risk and how national reports do not support that there has been an increase of reports of cases in the Netherlands. The introduction of the article repeats this sentiment, but adds that ‘worldwide, there has been an increase’. This comparative framing does two things: first, it acknowledges that indeed the risk of an increase in domestic violence cases exists, and this is a problem that should be taken seriously; but also, secondly, that this problem primarily happens elsewhere (as shown by the number of reports), and not here (again, proven by the number of reports). Statistics and numbers portraying the Netherlands as exempt from a peak in domestic violence cases during the COVID-19 crisis is potentially dangerous: the Dutch government, as well as its citizens, might underestimate the problem. Despite the context of social isolation, government run organisation huiselijkgeweld.nl still primarily calls upon friends, neighbours, and people nearby potential abuse to stay alert and to keep an eye out. This is contradictory, as one of the biggest issues in tackling violence in the private sphere is that it takes place in the private sphere – this means that often these cases do not leave the house. In a time where social contact with the outside world should be limited, it is more difficult to rely on outside sources to note something and report it. Something that remains hidden cannot be counted and thus cannot be reflected in statistics, which thus always already has a direct effect on what the numbers of domestic violence cases can reflect. This invisibility of cases could be further exacerbated during (inter)national lockdowns for reasons already mentioned.
Framing (in)visible domestic violence
The Ministry of Health, Wellbeing, and Sports states matter-of-factly that the numbers have not increased in the Netherlands, placed into comparison with the rest of the world. This reporting, however, raises questions about whether the current way that domestic violence in the Netherlands is framed potentially inhibits the way in which it is perceived, reported, and studied. Various media, including the NOS, obtained their information from figures coming from Veilig Thuis, a hotline and information centre for domestic violence and child abuse. Veilig Thuis normally receives 11,000 reports every month. At the beginning of the quarantine period, slightly fewer reports were made to some regional branches of Veilig Thuis. However, again, it is important not to confuse a decrease in the number of reports with a decrease of domestic violence. How do we know that there has not been an increase in domestic violence during lockdown when, according to statistics in Impactmonitor Huiselijk Geweld en Kindermishandeling 2019 by the CBS, most domestic violence cases are not reported by victims, but by an outsider?
The interpretation of the reports on and the consequent framing of domestic violence in the Netherlands during the COVID-19 crisis is a symptom of a much larger problem of invisibilised cases. How can we actively come up with a solution to domestic violence when Dutch law enforces gender-neutral terminology when we speak of domestic violence, even though statistics show that women are disproportionally victims in these situations? The enforcement of gender-neutral terminology in the law has been advocated for because it is more inclusionary to people who do not identify in the binary gender system. However, research articles that discuss the Dutch use of gender-neutral terminology specifically point to how this should encourage male victims to come forward. We see the gender-neutral terminology reflected within public discourse about domestic violence: mainstream conversations never include the gender-based dimension of domestic violence, even though it is often implied.[ii]
Can we accurately understand domestic violence as a structural, gender-based issue when language and (legal) framing do not offer the tools to do so?
Symptoms of a Larger Issue
Moreover, femicide, which is a term introduced to specifically address the murder of women, is a concept that is not (widely) acknowledged in the Netherlands – oftentimes, like the increase in domestic violence cases, femicide is framed as something that “happens elsewhere” (see here and here). However, CBS (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek) reported that in 2018, 43 women were murdered. 76% of those murders were committed by (ex-)partners. Independent platform OneWorld recently published an article that analysed the Dutch deflection of femicide as an issue of Latin American countries. There seems to be a tendency to play these issues down as gender-based inequality issues that seem to simply not occur here, which then presupposes a position in which gender inequality in the Netherlands is not a serious problem.[iii]
This raises the question: can we accurately understand domestic violence as a structural, gender-based issue when language and (legal) framing do not offer the tools to do so?
We can conclude that COVID-19 exacerbates many inequalities; these inequalities are now globally under a magnifying glass. We should take the opportunity to raise awareness and get new insights into the root causes of the problematics of domestic violence reporting in the Netherlands.
Brekelmans, Joyce Brekelmans & Hasna El Maroudi. November 24, 2020. “In Nederland Sterft elke 10 Dagen een Vrouw Als Gevolg van Huiselijk Geweld”. OneWorld.
CBS. 2019. “Impactmonitor Huiselijk Geweld en Kindermishandeling.” Den Haag: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.
CBS. 2019. “Minder Slachtoffers Moord en Doodslag in 2018”. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.
Eshuis, Karen. June 23, 2020. “Aantal Meldingen Huiselijk Geweld Niet Toegenomen Sinds Corona.” NOS.
“Gendercide: Ontbrekende Vrouwen?” (52013IP0400, Resolutie van het Europees Parlement van 8 oktober 2013 over Gendercide: ontbrekende vrouwen? (2012/2273(INI) Rechtsorde).
Harmsen, Judith. June 24, 2020. “De Geweldcrisis die Corona Heet: Huiselijk en Seksueel Geweld Tegen Vrouwen Neemt Wereldwijd Toe.” Trouw.
van Herk, Nick. December 28, 2020. “Toename Huiselijk Geweld in 2020: ‘Hulplijn moet zich meer richten op vrouwen.” ÉénVandaag.
Liem, Marieke, Inge de Jong Inge & Jade van Maanen. 2018. ‘Partnerdoding in Nederland’. Tijdschrift voor Veiligheid 17.4: pp. 34-53.
Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn, en Sport. June 24, 2020. “Niet Méér Meldingen Huiselijk Geweld Tijdens Coronacrisis.” Huiselijkgeweld.nl
Stanley, Maclen. May 9, 2020. “Why the Increase in Domestic Violence during COVID-19?” Psychology Today.
UNWoman. 2020. “COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Woman and Girls.” New York: UN Women Headquarters.
de Vaan, Katrien, Hannah Harthoorn & Kristen Martina. 2021. “Regioplan Beleidsonderzoek in Opdracht van VWS: Gendersensitiviteit in de Nederlandse Aanpak van Huiselijk Geweld: Nadere Concretisering van de Grevio-Aanbevelingen.” Rijksoverheid.
Diana Willemijn Helmich (she/they) is a second year student in the Research Master Gender Studies at UU. Her/their main interest lies in Critical Disability Studies, decolonial thought and praxis, and language and terminology. She/They are also currently the managing editor for issue 6.1/6/2 of Junctions: UU's Graduate Journal of the Humanities.
[i] Though NGOs specifically point towards the increase of gender-based violence, the government of the Netherlands consistently uses ‘huiselijk geweld’, which in its terminology does not reflect the gendered nature of this violence.