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Harvard Graduate Forms COVID-19 Task Force on Domestic Violence to Combat Dangers of Staying at Home

As surveys find increasing rates of domestic violence during the COVID-19 epidemic, Harvard graduate Ashrithaa Ashri S. Anurudran '19 has formed a task force focused on addressing the issue.
As surveys find increasing rates of domestic violence during the COVID-19 epidemic, Harvard graduate Ashrithaa Ashri S. Anurudran '19 has formed a task force focused on addressing the issue. By Aiyana G. White
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

As surveys find increasing rates of domestic violence during the COVID-19 epidemic, Harvard graduate Ashrithaa “Ashri” S. Anurudran ’19 has formed a task force focused on addressing the issue.

Anurudran said the purpose of the task force is to support those who may be in as much danger staying home as they would be going out during the pandemic — including those experiencing intimate partner violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. She decided to form the group after noticing that much of the public health advice she heard neglected this “marginalized community.”

“All the main public health advice is to stay at home,” Anurudran said. “That should be fine, but for a lot of people that could lead to potentially worse health outcomes than a virus could in some contexts.”

The task force she founded aims to accomplish three objectives: sharing resources, “turning bystanders into allies,” and appealing to policymakers. A page on the group’s website aimed at people experiencing domestic violence includes a shelter locator, hotline list, and safety planning guide.

“The main goal of the task force is advocating for survivors during this difficult time,” she said. “I see it in different ways — like, one, supporting survivors by providing a consolidated database of resources that are specific to COVID-19.”

The United Nations has reported a surge in domestic violence cases since the start of the pandemic, as vulnerable individuals are forced to remain home and healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed.

Anurudran said she has found that many people want to help prevent domestic violence, but do not necessarily know how. To address that gap, the task force she established works to draw attention to “tangible ways” for all people to get involved.

“Doing this work for so long, I realize it's such a sensitive topic, and people do care but they don't know how to be useful,” she said. “We've been reaching out to organizations, we've been asking them like, ‘How can we support you? How can students that are sitting at home support survivors?’”

“Another thing is kind of conveying the sense of urgency to policymakers and public health officials and why they need to consider this as they move forward,” she added.

One of the challenges faced by her task force has been collecting data to support calls to action.

“It's really, really hard to get data on this topic because it's so stigmatized and extremely underreported,” she said.

To combat this challenge, Anurudran said the task force has utilized data culled from Google Trends, police departments, organizations, and a citizen survey.

“We're hoping that with using these four different types of surveys, we'll be able to capture how big the burden is and also how we can help the most,” she said.

The task force also receives guidance from an advisory board composed of experts in a variety of fields. Dr. Lisa M. Bates, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of Public Health and member of the group’s board, said she has assisted the task force in the data analysis component of their work.

“Part of what they're doing is this very proactive data aggregation approach. We're going to be advising them on analytic approaches and generating reports,” she said. “It's a really impressive aggregation of where to find help.”

Dr. Thomas F. Burke, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, also serves on the advisory board. He met Anurudran during her first year at Harvard, calling her “a force of nature.”

Burke said his experience as an emergency physician aligns well with the advocacy work of the task force.

“[As emergency physicians] we are really deeply committed to those in our society that are most vulnerable,” he said. “We really advocate for social programs that promote equity and access to health care.”

Anurudran, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics and global health last year, said she has always been “really interested in sexual violence prevention work.”

“Most of my work throughout college was in Kenya,” she said. “I worked on Empower to Eliminate, which is a sexual violence prevention program for 12 to 14 year old girls and boys.”

Anurudran said the task force has grown from 10 to 15 students to roughly 50 to 60 in the United States, in addition to members around the world, from the Middle East to Europe.

“It has been truly amazing to see how many people care about this issue and how students have quickly mobilized,” Anurudran said.

Paula R. A. Chappel ’20, another task force member, said she began working for the group because of a long-held interest in combatting domestic and sexual violence.

“Feeling that I was strong enough and able enough to help others, I thought that this would be a really great use of my time,” Chappel said. “Why not use the instant connection I have or the passion I have for helping other people to do this work?”

“Especially during this time, I think that helping other people is key,” she added.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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