With more than 90 countries in lockdown, four billion people are now sheltering at home from the COVID-19 virus. It’s a protective measure, but it brings another deadly danger. According to UN Women, we are now seeing a shadow pandemic growing — one of violence against women.
As more countries report infections and lockdown, increasing numbers of domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world are reporting rising calls for help. In Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, government authorities, women’s rights activists, and civil society organizations have flagged increasing reports of domestic violence during the crisis, and heightened demand for emergency shelter Helplines in Singapore and Cyprus have registered an increase in calls by more than 30 percent. In Australia, 40 percent of frontline workers in New South Wales have reported increased requests for help.
Confinement is fostering tension and strain, created by security, health, and financial concerns. The situation is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behavior behind closed doors. In addition, as health systems are stretched to breaking point, domestic violence shelters are also reaching capacity — a service deficit made worse as centers get repurposed for emergency COVID-19 response.
Even before the current health crisis, domestic violence was already one of the greatest human rights violations. In the past 12 months, 243 million women and girls (aged between 15-49) globally have been the victim of sexual or physical violence by someone they know. As the pandemic continues, this number is likely to grow. This will have multiple impacts on women’s wellbeing, their sexual and reproductive health, their mental health, and an ability to participate and lead in the recovery of our societies and economy.
Extensive under-reporting of domestic and other forms of violence has previously made response and data gathering a challenge, with less than 40 percent of women who experience violence seeking help of any sort or reporting the crime. Less than 10 percent of women who seek help go to the police. The current circumstances make reporting to authorities even harder. This includes limitations on women’s and girls’ access to phones and helplines and disrupted public services like police, justice, and social services. These disruptions can also compromise the care and support that survivors need, like clinical management of rape, and mental health and psycho-social support. They also fuel impunity for perpetrators. In many countries, the law is not on a womans side. Shockingly, One in four countries have no laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence.
If not dealt with, this shadow pandemic will also add to the economic impact of COVID-19. The global cost of violence against women had previously been estimated at approximately US$1.5 trillion. That figure can only rise as violence increases, and will continue in the aftermath of this pandemic.
The increase in violence against women should be dealt with urgently, with measures that stem from economic support and stimulus packages that meet the seriousmmness and scale of this challenge. It should reflect the needs of women who face multiple forms of discrimination, too. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has called for governments around the world to include the prevention of violence against women a crucial part of their national response plans for this pandemic. Shelters and helplines for women should be considered an essential service, with funding and efforts made to increase awareness about their availability.
Women’s organizations and communities have played a critical role in preventing and responding to previous crises and need to be supported strongly in their current frontline role, including funding that remains in the longer-term. Helplines, psychosocial support, and online counseling should be promoted, using technology-based solutions such as SMS, website tools, and social networks to increase social support and to reach women with no access to phones or the internet. Police and justice services should mobilize to ensure that incidents of violence against women and girls are flagged as high priority, and without impunity for perpetrators. The private sector also has a vital role to play: sharing information, alerting staff to facts and dangers arounbd domestic violence. It might start with encouraging the sharing of childcare responsibilities at home.
The COVID-19 pandemic is testing us in ways many of us have never experienced before, providing emotional and economic shocks, above which we are struggling to rise. Any domestic violence that emerges now, as a dark feature of this pandemic, is a mirror (and a challenge) to our values, resilience, and shared humanity. We must both survive the coronavirus and emerge renewed, with women as a dominant force at the center of this recovery.