‘I feel unsafe:’ For domestic abuse survivors, home isn’t a safe place in the pandemic

Text by Theodore Perez

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains details of domestic abuse such as emotional and physical abuse.

When going outside has become unsafe because of COVID-19, what does that make of one’s home if an abuser lives under the same roof? 

Hannah* often sleeps in the day and stays up at night to avoid interaction with her abusive father. Being in the same room as him is already enough reason for him to start a fight.

She hasn’t been able to see her psychiatrist since the pandemic began, as their sessions would have only been online, and her father doesn’t like hearing criticism.

“This house isn’t a safe place to talk about these kinds of problems,” Hannah says, afraid of what her father might hear. “Especially when everybody can hear you. Because it’s a small house, there are holes in the walls.”

Hannah, a 21-year-old college student, has a strained relationship with her father because of the emotional abuse he has inflicted on her since she was young.

She wanted to be far away from her father so she left her province in Mindanao to pursue education in Manila. She had been able to live far from her family and only see them rarely, until the pandemic started and lockdown measures came into being. 

Hannah, like many other women, has been rendered vulnerable to domestic abuse as lockdowns forced them to live with their abusive families with barely any options to secure help for themselves. 

According to the UP Center on Women’s and Gender Studies (UPCWG), the constraints brought by the pandemic have made it increasingly difficult for women to report incidents of violence or to even seek help from friends, family, service providers or women’s organizations because they are locked inside with their abusers. 

Hannah isn’t the only woman who bears the brunt of her father’s anger under their roof, as she has often seen him finding reason to shout at her mother. Hannah would try to stop him, only to be dismissed and be told that what he’s doing is ‘right.’ 

“[But] what he’s doing is maltreatment of his family for stupid reasons,” she says. 

Domestic abuse is as deadly a virus as COVID-19 and has long been a problem even before the pandemic struck.

What her mother experiences is, in fact, a systemic problem. One in four Filipino women, aged 15 to 49, experiences physical, emotional or sexual violence from their intimate partners according to the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey. 

Dr. Nathalie Africa-Verceles of the UPCWG further explains, “Women and girls [in the pandemic] find heightened vulnerability to gender-based violence. Additional economic and social pressures such as the loss of livelihood, food and security increased the vulnerability of women and girls as these potentially trigger violence.”

Financial struggles brought by the pandemic paired with an abusive father pit the frustrations of Hannah’s family toward each other, leaving tensions heightened and the unhealthy environment she had grown up with even worsened. 

Domestic abuse exists in many forms

When abuse is in the form of an insult heard over and over again, Regina Buco can’t ever feel at home, as the only place she can be herself is a room where her family doesn’t enter.

“I feel really unsafe in my home,” she says, recounting the many times she had been verbally abused by her family.

Her father’s and even her older siblings’ insults, name-calling and ridicule negatively affect Regina. “It’s a bunch of microaggressions that just stares into you every single day,” she says. 

Even when Regina and her siblings were younger, her father already subjected them to abuse. She recalled a time when her father punished her for eating slowly by putting her in a sack. He also once threw a glass at her older sister for not drinking her milk, causing her head to bleed. 

Regina is now a 20-year-old college student and says that her father has since then stopped being physically abusive. Yet the trauma of her childhood abuse makes her flinch every time she hears her dad threaten her verbally. 

A 2016 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study on violence indicates that about three out of five Filipino children experience some form of physical as well as psychological violence, the former having occurred more than the latter at home.

The study reveals that such abuse can be atrributed to the normalization of corporal punishment within families as means of discipline and manifestation of “love.” However,  behind such norms lies a patriarchal system — or the historic social structure that upholds the unequal power relations between men and women in our culture and society by promoting male dominance and female subordination.

When Regina arrived home in their house, she was welcomed with painful but familiar words. “Oh bakit pa rin umuwi?” she once heard her eldest sister say. “Parang wala naman siyang kuwenta, wala siyang ginagawa dito.” 

If given a chance, Regina would not have come back to this place of abuse, but the pandemic has left women like her with no other choice but to be locked down with their abusive family members. 

The same UNICEF study suggests the prevailing social norms, which perpetuate gender inequality, along with experiences of violence during childhood lead victims to possibly become perpetrators of violence themselves, as displayed by Regina’s sisters. Behavior that exhibits dominance, power and control over somebody else mimics the behavior of patriarchy.

“I don’t think they really consider what they do as violence,” Regina says about her family members who often overlook how badly they treat her. “I think a lot of abusers think that way, [that] they’re not really doing anything wrong, they’re just being themselves or the person they are hurting is just ‘overreacting’ or ‘too sensitive.’”

Still, her family continues to verbally abuse her at home. “Wala ka namang kuwenta,“ her father would tell her for not knowing how to cook. “Ba’t ka lumabas?” she hears every time she leaves the room after working long hours. “We don’t even need you here,” her older siblings would casually say.

“Am I the one that’s wrong?” Regina asks, wondering whether or not she can consider her experience as abuse. “Parang nagiging ‘yun ‘yung mindset mo. The fact that… I don’t have physical proof that they really hurt me.”

Her phone holds videos of her crying and breaking down to remind herself that it happened.

“I have really bad moments where I am very close to doing really bad things,” Regina recalls the moments when she had to calm herself down.

As words leave no physical mark, it is often forgotten that domestic abuse comes in many forms, not only physically but verbally and emotionally as well, thus requiring the same amount of attention.  

Victim-survivors of domestic abuse need to be heard

Neither Hannah nor Regina has been able to report the terrors they face at home.

Hannah doesn’t know how, while Regina fears that it will only worsen her situation at home.

There are almost 7,000 reported cases of violence against women and children recorded from March 15 to Nov. 30 this year, Philippine National Police data shows.

However, the number of reported cases has dropped significantly by 36% compared to the same period last year which recorded 11,750 cases. This suggests that many cases of domestic abuse have gone unreported due to hindrances brought by the pandemic.

“I’ve tried thinking of ways to get out,” Hannah says, having thought of leaving home.

She said she could pay for a trip to Manila and other expenses, and stay with other relatives. However, she realized it was more complicated than that. 

“How am I supposed to get to the testing center? To get the requirements so I can actually board the plane? I need my parents’ help to move myself around,” she says.

Being financially dependent on their families, Hannah and Regina have almost no option but to wait for things to go back to normal.

While waiting, however, they both call for people to reach out, be aware of what’s going on in others’ homes and let them know they’re not alone.

“As long as you allow yourself to recognize that it’s actually real, then it’s not your fault,” Regina says. Having struggled with self-doubt, she reminds herself that the abuse she experiences is not because of what she does or lacks but because of how her family treats her. 

Hannah also believes there’s strength and validation in speaking up, knowing that many other victims go through this and need to be heard. 

“If you need people to reach out to, there’s always going to be people willing to listen. You just have to believe in yourself and believe in what you’re experiencing… that it’s valid and that other people will follow suit,” Regina echoes, believing that talking about domestic abuse will help end the culture of shame that victim-survivors undergo. 

Ending violence against women in the country and around the world requires collective action from everyone, according to the Philippine Comission on Women.

For barangays, government agencies and non-governmental organizations must strengthen their capacity and services to assist survivors. The academe and the general public should also work to harbor a safe space for women and to raise public awareness on the issue.  

Stopping domestic abuse begins with believing survivors. Lunas Collective counsellor Viola Torres, who is also part of UPCWG, states that people need to believe survivors when they say that they’re being hurt by their partners or families.

It is to listen to the voices of Hannah, Regina and many others, and recognize that what they’re experiencing is real and valid. It is to acknowledge that the domestic abuse they experience can come in many forms and be perpetuated by family members who believe they hold power over them. 

It is to empower victim-survivors and provide a safe space for them to speak about their experiences, effectively breaking the walls that intend to silence them, and letting their voices be heard without fear of shame or judgement. 

*Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the name of one interviewee has been changed upon their request.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse, please don’t hesitate to contact the following organizations or helplines. You may report incidences of gender-based violence online through the e-Report sa Gender Ombud. For further assistance, you may also contact the Inter-Agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children (IACVAWC) Secretariat of the Philippine Commission of Women (PCW) at [email protected], (632) 8733-6611 / 8735-1654 loc.122 or 0917-867-1907.

For additional services such as counselling, legal advice and other resources related to gender-based violence, you may contact Lunas Collective on Facebook, Likhaan Center for Women’s Health at 0939 291 3601 and 0926 078 7117, or The Sanctuary Project at 0945 836 8793 or [email protected]

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