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What lockdown taught us about domestic abuse

It is probably obvious by now that there are innumerable knock-on effects of the pandemic. But what if the very same rules in place to keep the population safe, are putting some in even more danger?
BBC: How smart devices are exploited for domestic abuse

Domestic violence, a broad term capturing intimate partner violence and other abuse occurring in domestic settings, is known to escalate during and after “large-scale disasters”, of which the pandemic is indisputably one (1). Globally, 30% of all women who have been in a relationship report having experienced either physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partner (2). Although this abuse extends beyond women in heterosexual relationships, instances of abuse are highest among this group. When 34% of murders against women are attributed to male intimate partners (past and present), it is certainly too serious to ignore.

The lockdown rules keeping most people physically safe from the pandemic have starkly contrasting impacts on others. Cracks in the domestic violence support process have started to show, bringing some of the challenges faced by survivors into sharp focus.

While behavioural insights (BI) are no silver bullet, they do well to complement and enhance existing systems. Wider policy changes, funding and overhauls of the legal framework, provide the foundations for tackling issues such as these. But behavioural interventions can often be implemented more quickly and cost-effectively, making them a valuable tool to improve the efficacy of processes already in place, while larger changes plod through the pipeline.

Identifying barriers to behaviour, both real and perceived, is a key element of BI. Many of these insights will not only go on to inform larger policy design, but some barriers can be lowered using behavioural interventions.

One major barrier to the initial reporting of domestic violence is a person’s uncertainty towards the risks involved.

Uncertainty aversion is a cognitive bias describing people’s preference for known risks over unknown ones (3). This means that survivors are likely to opt for the known risks of abuse, which may become normalised through repeated experience, instead of opening the door to a new set of risks which are harder to quantify.

Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash

Take the example of reporting abuse. A survivor is not only risking direct repercussions of reporting abuse from the partner, but also many unquantified risks associated with ultimately escaping the abuse. They may feel as though the known risk of the potential for continued abuse is more favourable than a multitude of unknowns (such as insecure future living circumstances and the potential of being separated from children).

Minimising the risks of being caught requires consideration of the survivor’s situation, which is often very variable. They might be under surveillance from their partner and so require as much discretion as possible. Several phone manufacturers in Spain have designed a function whereby the helpline number would not appear on an outgoing call list (4).

Imagine you call a helpline…

Providing you find an opportunity to call, it is likely that there’s a queue during peak times. Ensuring that someone does not hang up in this time requires an intervention to overcome present bias. Present bias refers to the preference for immediate rewards over later ones. In this case, the immediate reward would be the perceived safety of hanging up immediately, rather than waiting for support and later rewards of safety. An intervention proposed by the Inter-American Development bank proposed playing a recording of a story from a survivor who initially sought help through this helpline, and how it has made a difference in their life (5). This aims to keep people on the line by making the larger delayed reward salient. Simply inserting a message about waiting times, position in the queue, and what kind of support will be provided can comfort callers and also simultaneously signal that others are in the same boat.

You’ve gotten through to an operator. Initially, a reassurance of confidentiality will reduce the uncertainty associated with accessing help. But then you get interrupted and the call ends. This is not uncommon. A Salvadoran helpline registered 74% of calls incomplete (6). In order to ensure that the caller is not lost entirely, conversations could start with the operator and caller thinking of a strategy in the case of interruption (such as an agreement to call back the next day at a particular time).

You’ve made the call and have been referred to the next stage for further support. However, they’ve given you another helpline number. Not only is this a continued risk, but it also might feel as though you’ll have to start from scratch with a new operator on another helpline. A simple, yet very effective, change is to automatically refer cases between services. This means people seeking support won’t have to continually reach out to new helplines at each stage.

Calling for help when you can’t call

Of course, in particularly difficult circumstances you might not be able to call a helpline. Either it is too risky, or you simply are not granted private access to any devices. Lockdowns have reduced opportunities for private phone calls and the importance of other ways to seek help have come to the fore. With the restriction of in-person drop-ins, there need to be other ways to report abuse. Online chats instead of helplines may be a solution, as well as integrated functions into fertility tracker apps or buttons within online shopping platforms.

In-person services are a vital source of support for many survivors of domestic violence. Temporary closures reduced access to these services which meant many people were not able to report abuse. One solution to this was the appearance of pop-up services in places where women could still go without rousing suspicion. After soaring cases of domestic violence in France during lockdown, reporting stations were set up in supermarkets and pharmacies, providing a much-needed opportunity for reporting for those whose movements are being tracked (for example using Find My Friends). A conceptually similar approach is the UK’s pre-pandemic Ask for Angela campaign, which enables survivors to seek help in bars by asking the bar staff for ‘Angela’.
Met Police: Ask for Angela

The importance of nuance in behavioural interventions cannot be understated, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the context of domestic violence. Reduced in-person access to support services is more sorely felt by BAME women, as they are more likely to seek support in-person or through the community (7). They are also less likely to be able to obtain support from networks such as friends and family. Understanding the barriers different women face to reporting domestic violence is paramount.

One size fits all approaches rarely work for everyone. Different people face different barriers, and this is why it is imperative that there is a whole range of routes to getting support. A TikTok recently went viral advertising a hand signal which survivors can use silently while on video calls to signal their need for support. While ideas like this may work for some, they can also prove problematic. Firstly, they need to be widely advertised enough such that the receiver picks up the signal. But as a consequence, it means that perpetrators themselves grow wise to these techniques and may restrict access to social platforms, thereby isolating the person further. Preventing backfire effects such as these is why behavioural insights are so important. Wherever possible, they minimise the risks of implementing something that could prove costly.

Many survivors of domestic violence are already shouldering a burdensome cognitive load. Making reporting easier and safer for these people is one essential element of improving outcomes and is where behavioural insights is especially important.

If you need support relating to any of the issues mentioned above, please do not hesitate to visit

Flo Cochrane

President of CUBISS

(Edited by Jasmine Lee, Secretary of CUBISS)



  1. Bradbury-Jones, C., & Isham, L. (2020). The pandemic paradox: The consequences of COVID-19 on domestic violence. Journal of clinical nursing, 29(13-14), 2047–2049.

  2. World, H. O. (2013). Global and regional estimates of violence against women : Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. ProQuest Ebook Central

  3. Fox , C. R., & Tversky, A. (1995). Ambiguity Aversion and Comparative Ignorance. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 110(3), 585–60

  4. Sanz Fernandez, 2017 - Sanz Fernández , J. (2017). Las llamadas al 016 no dejarán rastro alguno en los móviles LG y Huawei.” El País. June 22. Retrieved from

  5. Garnelo, M., Bustin, C., Duryea, S., & Morrison, A. (2019). Applying Behavioral Insights to Intimate Partner Violence: Improving Services for Survivors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Retrieved 25 February 2021, from

  6. ISDEMU. (2015). ISDEMU promueve APP para erradicar la violencia contra las mujeres. Retrieved 25 February 2021, from

  7. Home Affairs Committee. (2020). Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 (Coronavirus): domestic abuse and risks of harm within the home. Retrieved 25 February 2021, from

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