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Zoila fell fast for the soft-spoken day laborer, moving in with him last year just two weeks after their first date. But after El Salvador imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown, she says, the man she thought she knew became an inescapable menace.

"The quarantine changed everything," said the woman, whom The Washington Post is identifying only by her first name to protect her identity.

Shut inside their one-room house in rural El Salvador, he began drinking heavily. Soon, she says, he was regularly violating the coronavirus curfew and seeing other women openly. He would return home at odd hours, wake her and demand meals. Drunk, he would taunt Zoila, 24 and pregnant, calling her worthless and threatening violence.

Then one morning, she says, he grabbed her by the throat, slamming her against the wall and attempting to rape her. When she resisted, she said, the punching began, stopping only when fluid began trailing down her leg. Zoila screamed, fearing a miscarriage.

"I remember that day, and I just want to cry," said Zoila, who gave birth to a daughter in June. "I was pregnant," she said. "During what was supposed to be a time of joy for me, I felt only pain."

For untold numbers of women and children around the globe, the pandemic has meant a twofold threat: the risk of catching a deadly virus coupled with the peril of being locked in confined spaces with increasingly violent abusers.

Official statistics are mixed. In some countries, reports of abuse have risen; in others, including the United States, they've fallen. But people who work with victims say that in countries seeing fewer complaints, the numbers mask a darker reality.

The closure of schools and day-care centers means teachers and social workers have been unable to identify and report abuse. A growing body of evidence suggests that incidents of domestic violence are rising as families struggle with restrictions on movement and mounting economic hardship.

Countries rich and poor have shown growing signs of a surge in domestic violence. Fifty-four percent of vulnerable women surveyed by CARE in Lebanon reported an increase in violence and harassment; 44% said they felt less safe at home.

In China's Hubei province, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled during the lockdown there in February. Then-French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said reports of domestic violence jumped by more than 30% within the first two weeks of the country's lockdown. The Catalan regional government in Spain reported a 20% increase in calls to its help line in the first few days of its confinement order, according to UNICEF.

There is precedent for increased abuse during health crises. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, researchers with UNICEF and major charities found, violence against children, rapes and teenage pregnancies spiked.

"Sometimes, reported abuse cases are falling dramatically and you would think that violence is going down, but it's just the opposite," said Christina Wegs, global advocacy director for sexual and reproductive health and rights for CARE. "The drop is reflecting that women and vulnerable people are not able to report what's happening.

"You see this in times of crisis. Abuse goes up as there are incredible strains on families and people are confined together without choice."

The data is particularly troubling in Latin America.

In Colombia, intrafamily violence against women 29 to 59 spiked 94% between March and May, a study showed. Officials in Paraguay received reports of at least 80 abuse cases a day in March, a 35% jump from that month a year earlier.

In the Venezuelan state of Tachira, local officials responded to 840 cases of abuse from March through May, up from 150 cases during the same period a year earlier. In Buenos Aires, calls to an emergency hotline for abuse cases spiked 48% from March through June year over year.

Some young victims, unable to access teachers or counselors while locked down, have sought new ways to find help.

Sara Barni, head of Red Viva, an anti-abuse organization in Buenos Aires, was going through the group's Facebook messages when she spotted what she called an "SOS" from a 14-year-old boy.

"We didn't used to get calls for help like this," she said. "But we're seeing it happen more during the quarantine."

She reviewed videos and audio recordings sent by the boy. He could be heard screaming as an uncle physically and verbally abused him and sexually abused his younger sister.

"He sent me a video, a very short one, showing how his uncle touched his 5-year-old sister," Barni said. "It was sickening."

She contacted Argentine authorities, she said, and several days later police found the boy and his two sisters and removed them from the home.

"I couldn't believe how brave and quick-thinking this young boy was," she said. "I am sure that once this lockdown is over, we will discover there was a dark side to this pandemic."


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