In early March, stay-at-home orders were put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly people across the world were instructed to quarantine at home. For most people, inside the walls of their home is a place of security and solace. For others, home can be a dangerous place of abuse.
In an instant, domestic violence victims around the world became isolated with their abusers causing domestic violence reports to increase by 35% in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. With social isolation and the stress of the unknown, the coronavirus pandemic started to breed dangerous situations at home where violence may have never previously shown its face. Domestic violence quickly became an epidemic within the pandemic.
For most people, inside the walls of their home is a place of security and solace. For others, home can be a dangerous place of abuse.
Relationship abuse is about control and power and an abuser can use many tools to exercise control over a victim. This includes an international health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, abusive partners can exert power in ways such as preventing victims from seeking medical attention if they show symptoms, sharing misinformation about the health crisis to frighten their victims, and even withholding necessities that would keep them safe such as disinfectants or hand sanitizers.
Being co-quarantined with an abuser eliminates the privacy needed for victims to reach out to resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Love Is Respect text hotline, or even their local shelters. This can be an incredibly dangerous situation.
By the month of April, countries such as Spain, France, and the United Kingdom took to adding another avenue for victims in the form of a secret codeword. The codeword "MASK 19" was implemented in pharmacies across Europe for domestic violence victims to use as an extended resource. If "MASK 19" was used on-site, the pharmacists were trained to follow a protocol to notify authorities safely and discreetly for the victim to seek assistance from law enforcement. Pharmacies became one of the only essential businesses open around the world, becoming the perfect opportunity for survivors to seek refuge.
In an instant, domestic violence victims around the world became isolated with their abusers causing domestic violence reports to increase by 35% in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
As a survivor of relationship abuse at a young age, I saw an imperative need for a codeword in the United States. I imagined what it would have felt like in my unhealthy relationship to be physically isolated from the world in the age of COVID-19. I looked forward to escaping to class every day or making lunch plans with a friend to take my mind off of life at home with my abuser.
For many other women experiencing domestic violence, work was their place of solace. But once the stay-at-home orders were in place suddenly working from home was the new normal for almost everyone except essential workers. Reflecting on this, I saw a codeword for victims as an incredible opportunity to add an extended avenue of refuge during the coronavirus. At first, I chuckled at the thought of myself working to implement a codeword—as just a 21-year-old recent Fashion Merchandising graduate—but soon I started to think that maybe it wasn't as crazy of an idea as I thought.
With the mission in my head to be a voice for survivors in my community, I began my journey of implementing a codeword in New Jersey by taking the grassroots route. Christophe Castaner, the Interior Minister of France, consulted with the President of the National Order of Pharmacists back in April and together they agreed on a proposal to implement the codeword throughout the country.
Relationship abuse is about control and power and an abuser can use many tools to exercise control over a victim.
Due to the fact that European countries tend to have universal health care systems, I realized it would be a much different process in America to implement something similar. Search engines and social media quickly became my best friend as I researched the most efficient way to get in contact with local elected officials. From office emails, Facebook Messenger requests, Instagram DMs, and the classic phone call, I made sure to cover all my outlets. After weeks of sending endless inquiries, I started to focus my time on creating my own briefs in order to confirm participation from local businesses and law enforcement.
After forming my briefs and connecting with local law enforcement, I came to the conclusion that we needed more than just a COVID codeword in New Jersey. I wanted to expand the idea of the codeword into an outlet that would be effective and useful for victims beyond the stay-at-home orders. From a worldwide outbreak to a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, we have seen numerous instances where families and children have been isolated at home for often long periods of time without relief.
I followed up my connection with law enforcement with a phone call to the local domestic violence shelter. In my home county, this domestic violence and sexual assault shelter works closely with the Prosecutor's Office regarding domestic violence initiatives. Together we joined forces to implement a tactic that evolved into more than a codeword.
The idea of using a codeword in local businesses came to mind, similar to the European system set up in pharmacies. It was innovative and it worked. Local businesses throughout our county were provided with printing materials for the shelter and taught how to educate victims on how to turn to the shelter.
Since every relationship is unique, creating another resource for victims to use in dangerous situations is incredibly important, not just in the age of COVID. Victims are always vulnerable, and you never know what avenue could save their life.
Domestic violence quickly became an epidemic within the pandemic.
It took a worldwide pandemic for society to open its eyes on the relevancy of domestic violence but it is an issue that affects people everywhere. This framework is important work, but ultimately is something that should be implemented throughout the entire state or perhaps even on a national level. If the second wave of the coronavirus does show its face, we as survivors will be ready to seek out help in new and innovative ways.
WRITTEN BYGina Mellish