The ‘Shadow Pandemic’ of Intimate Partner Violence

In the U.S., an estimated 20 people are assaulted every minute by intimate partners. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, advocates worry that rate is even higher.

This blog was originally published on March 26, 2021. 

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic drag on, so does what the United Nations calls “a shadow pandemic” of intimate partner violence (IPV) within the pandemic of the virus itself.

Anecdotally, we know that the additional stressors on families — such as restricted movement, forced isolation, and economic insecurity — have increased the likelihood of violence in already-volatile homes. Data and reports from around the world have shown domestic violence spiking since the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020. According to the United Nations group U.N. Women, calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries.

An uptick in domestic violence endangers victims more than ever

The situation is troubling here in the U.S. as well, where data from police departments show worrying trends such as an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in San Antonio, a 22% increase in arrests related to domestic violence in Portland, Oregon, and a 27% increase in domestic violence calls in Jefferson County, Alabama. As the pandemic itself continues to affect communities of color more severely, so does the spike in intimate partner violence, due largely to systemic issues that contribute to lower income and less access to services. According to the Center for Survivor Advocacy and Justice, the rates of abuse have increased dramatically by about 50% and higher for those marginalized by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status, and cognitive physical ability.

We know that these reports and surveys can’t fully capture the scope of the problem because many people are unable to reach out for help and are suffering in silence. Under typical circumstances, a victim may have a window of time during the day (when their partner is at work or regularly out the house) to call a hotline and learn about what resources are available to help them, or call the local shelter to see if any space is available.

But that may not be possible now if their partner lost their job and is now always at home with them. Even if they do find a moment alone to call a shelter, it may be difficult to find a bed in one, as many programs have been forced to reduce their capacity to limit exposure to the virus. The fear of being infected may also mean that victims who were prepared to enter a shelter are hesitant to do so. The economic uncertainty of these times means victims who might have been ready to leave their abusive partners have to rethink their plans. These are just a few of the reasons why we won’t know the true scope of the shadow pandemic until COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift. 

What you can do to make a difference

This leads us to wonder if there is anything we can do to help curb IPV in the midst of this crisis when so many of our resources and attention are devoted to other important causes. The answer is yes.

You can learn more about the issue by visiting websites like, attending webinars like the upcoming “Understanding Intimate Partner Violence” presented by us and the Mary Byron Project, or watching this recorded training hosted by the Mary Byron Project. If you’re in a position to help financially, donate to domestic violence organizations, many of which are finding themselves with more demand for services and reduced financial support.

More personally, do you know someone for whom you sincerely fear that violence might be erupting or escalating in these unusual times? Can you make a phone call? Can you be a voice of support, a voice of calm? Can you work out a system for an amount of time with no contact from your friend before you call the police and ask them to check on that person's safety?

If you can do any of these things then, yes, you can help.