Behind the Four Walls: Domestic Abuse and Sexual Exploitation in Quarantine

Written by Shanice Dy and Anna Divinagracia
Edited by Alyssa Melody Paglumotan

Reality in the “new normal” is a scene straight out of a post-apocalyptic movie: terrified masked individuals careful not to touch a soul, indignant protesters fighting for the rights of the people, nations under lockdown, and media corporations being shut down and doctored. There is no doubt that reality has not been the same since the global pandemic, alongside all the social and political issues dominating the daily news. Yet, amid the protests and issues, there are recurring problems rampantly happening behind closed doors, muffled under such loud clamour — problems including domestic abuse and sexual exploitation.

For victims, safety does not lie within the four walls of home. Cases of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation have been at an increase since the onset of the quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Becoming a victim has been more commonplace than ever, with the lockdown and quarantine enabling perpetrators to commit the heinous crimes.

The unsafe side of quarantine: a worldwide domestic abuse trend

“Stay at home! It will keep you safe.” These are words constantly being passed around by everyone — netizens, strangers, and friends. To establish higher levels of safety and security, governments around the world have declared lockdowns to, yet again, “keep you safe.” Those words may be true in the context of the global pandemic, but victims of domestic abuse experience otherwise. It is true that quarantine ensures society’s safety from SARS-CoV2 — that is, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. It is also true, however, that being under quarantine with abusive family members and partners only exacerbates the risk of experiencing domestic abuse.

Refuge, the United Kingdom’s largest domestic abuse charity, reported a 700% increase in helpline calls in a single day (Townsend, 2020). The Ukranian National Hotline on Combatting Domestic Violence reported an almost 26% increase in calls for the first two weeks of quarantine compared to the previous two-week period (UNFPA, 2020). France has also observed a 30% increase in domestic violence cases in the first week of the country’s lockdown (France 24, 2020). Worse yet, at least 16 domestic abuse killings have been identified in the United Kingdom — more than thrice over the last 10 years (Grierson, 2020). Countries across the globe have observed this increasing trend, and there is no doubt that the rise in such cases is directly linked to the global pandemic.

The Philippines is no stranger to cases of domestic abuse. In a country where at least one out of 20 women have experienced some form of violence even before the quarantine period, nothing seems more terrifying; a lockdown in the hands of an abuser only worsens the pain and the terror. According to data from the Philippine Commission on Women, from March 15 to April 30, the start of the country-wide quarantine period, 804 incidents of gender-based violence and violence against women and children were reported. Additionally, according to the Philippine National Police, a total of 1,945 cases of violence against women were recorded as of the 4th of June 2020. These surprisingly high numbers are already decreasing compared to the previous months, although the decrease may have been caused by a difficulty in reporting such incidents due to proximity of the abuser — the presumably safe quarantine has only heightened the reluctance of Filipinas to contact the appropriate channels.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, a public champion of women’s rights, warned the country of the rise of domestic abuse cases due to the quarantine. “The quarantine is difficult for all of us. But is it a living nightmare for women who are trapped with their abusers behind closed doors,” she stated. Hontiveros also urged the Philippine National Police to strengthen its ties with local government units against domestic violence. She adds that the cases will only increase if we turn a blind eye; action must be done immediately.

With the need for financial support in a time of increasing unemployment rates, victims of domestic abuse may find it difficult to escape. According to former New York City Criminal Court judge Judy Harris Kluger, “one of the reasons that victims sometimes can’t leave, or are afraid to leave, is because of the economic tie they may have to the abuser.” Putting food on the table is becoming a harder task as the days go by, and, sadly, victims, especially those with children, may rely on the abuser for such a feat.

According to Irene Frieze and Angela Browne, authors of the book Violence in Marriage which tackles issues regarding family violence, even before the home quarantine period started, most cases of domestic violence were never reported to the police. Because of travel restrictions and strict quarantine measures, family members in the same household are most likely “locked up” with each other, including those who are experiencing domestic abuse. Those who spend a lot of time away from their homes to avoid the domestic violence perpetrators have no choice but to stay with them at these times. If victims had a hard time speaking up about their cases, how much more now that they have nowhere to go? It is only expected that reports on domestic violence cases will decrease as the quarantine period keeps on extending.

Surge of child abuse and sexual exploitation cases

As children are away from school because of stay-at-home policies amid the coronavirus pandemic, they are spending more time online. COVID-19 restrictions have coincided with a significant increase in reports of child sexual abuse cases. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a global clearinghouse that disseminates tips to law enforcement, reported 2 million cases of child cyber abuse in March and 4.1-million cases in April, a fourfold increase over April 2019. The surge was said to have slowed in May but the number of cases are still above average. 

John Shehan, head of the Center’s Exploited Children Division, said, “It was definitely a huge increase compared to the year prior, and has put a huge strain on law enforcement around the world, who are dealing with a pandemic and all of these reports coming in at the same time.” 

The blog Defend Innocence has also listed six risk factors of child sexual abuse, two of which are unsupervised access to technology and explicit media exposure. Perpetrators of sexual abuse often target children electronically before physically. Also, a lot of content posted in social networking sites normalizes sexual abuse and shows children that unhealthy sexual behavior is a norm. 

Los Angeles Police Department and Australian authorities have released official statements on the increase in child sexual exploitation cases, warning everyone to monitor their children more closely. The Five Country Governments, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, jointly launched a set of Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse on March 5, 2020.

In the Philippines, the Department of Justice cybercrime unit recently reported that Online Sexual Exploitation of Children (OSEC) cases have increased threefold during the lockdown period. A surge in sexual exploitation of children online was recorded on the main island of Luzon between March 1 and May 24, which corresponds with the time frame of lockdowns. Romeo Dongeto, convener of the Child Rights Network, also mentioned that at least 25 percent of OSEC cases in the country are perpetrated by family members and close contacts of victims. This is highlighted by the fact that there is a drastic increase in child abuse and sexual exploitation cases during the pandemic. 

Even a new study released by the Washington-based International Justice Mission said that Philippine cases of online child sexual exploitation have increased sharply in recent years with parents agreeing to have their own children victimized for the money, making the country a “global hotspot” of online sexual abuse. Since in most cases, the traffickers are actually parents or close family members of the kids they are exploiting, the nationwide lockdown and quarantine period means that the children are being locked down with their traffickers.

The latest sexual exploitation modus

Amid the immense number of quarantine guidelines, citizens are struggling to survive with their limited resources. Departing to acquire daily goods and transition to a “new normal” becomes more tedious than ever with quarantine checkpoints at every turn. The policemen at such stations are not aiding the people either, according to the victims of the sex-for-pass scheme (Rivas, 2020).

The scheme, with policemen as perpetrators, entails the disregard of quarantine guideline violations through physical and sexual abuse and exploitation. Victims report cops offering cash, food, or transportation in exchange for sex. The quarantine only exacerbated the threats women receive from the policemen, according to one victim. She felt embarrassed, but she was desperate to feed her family and herself.

The Malacanang Palace and the Philippine National Police have heard such allegations from news outlets and reports from concerned citizens. Their reply: victims should report police perpetrators to the official outlets for the latter to be rightfully tried in the court of law. According to PNP Chief Gamboa, the moment a police officer commits such a crime, he terminates his law enforcer status and becomes a sexual predator. No updates on the scheme or the perpetrators have been reported as of the publishing of this article.

Living in a post-apocalyptic scene is not as easy as it is on the big and small screens. We continuously battle the pandemic, fight for our rights, and wake up to the terrifying news with our end line still not in sight — with our fear of the second wave and more waves to come. It is never easy; surely, it is harder for people who experience more than what we normally do.

In this “new normal” world, we tend to sympathize with people undergoing certain conditions, patients battling diseases, workers getting laid off, and victims suffering from abuse. While we can try to put our feet in someone else’s shoes to understand how they feel, we can help them in more ways than just comforting them. Raising awareness regarding such matters through posting infographics on social media, signing petitions, or reposting reports by authorities is one out of the multiple ways to help. 

Living in a post-apocalyptic scene while experiencing sexual exploitation and domestic abuse only gets harder as the days go by. We don’t have to make it harder for victims, however. Raise awareness, lend a virtual shoulder to lean on, and actively aid victims by contacting the proper channels. Remember: you can do something even from afar.

If you are in need of legal assistance,

Public Attorney’s Office (PAO)
  • (02) 8929-9436 local 106, 107 or 159
  • Mobile: (+63) 939-3233665
  • Email:

If you are in need of police assistance,

PNP-Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC)
NBI-Violence Against Women and Children Desk (VAWCD)
  • Tel. No.: 8523-8231 to 38 / 8525-6028

If you are in need of medical assistance (including mental and psychological help),

National Center for Mental Health (NCMH)
  • Crisis hotline: (02) 8989-8727 / 09178998727

Send us a message and we’ll help you.

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