The World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 as a worldwide pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, a lot has happened: borders have been closed, global leaders have tested positive for the virus, many people have lost their jobs or changed how they used to do it, supermarkets have been emptied by panicked shoppers, people have been dissuaded from hugging and kissing their loved ones until further notice, and many countries have declared a state of emergency. Now people are being asked to stay at home and only leave it to buy groceries or medicine.
Pandemics exacerbate inequalities, including gender issues which have been present for a very long time. But in the middle of this ‘new normal’ that we are trying to get used to, there is one specific group of people who is now more vulnerable than before: victims of domestic violence.
Mariana Limón has been covering violence against women for three years in México. Her country is well known for its lack of gender-oriented policies and since last year, feminists groups and activists have been taking to the street to protest against femicides. She explained to Westminster World why women are more vulnerable during a natural disaster such as a pandemic.
“There are several factors involved: first, obviously is the isolation from support groups/networks due to the lockdown, which leaves victims or potential victims in a vulnerable situation, caught with an aggressor. Second, government, hospitals, shelters and/or NGO offices that support gender violence victims could be closed, limiting the possibilities of escape. Third, economic problems (like a lost job, for example) can increase dependence on an abusive partner and/or impossibility to move”, she said.
Following that line, Allison Randall is vice president for policy and emerging issues for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She told the Huffington Post that “perpetrators of domestic violence commonly try to isolate victims and cut off their relationships with coworkers or friends or family.” This means that during a quarantine, not being able to go to work and connect with their colleagues increases women’s vulnerability.
On the other hand, if we go back in time to when Ebola hit West Africa, cases of sexual and domestic violence rose while the resources originally intended to reach institutions that protected women were directed to the emergency action against the pandemic. Going back to 2020, in China, where Covid-19 began, activists have already reported more cases of domestic violence while in quarantine.
Internationally, organisations such as The United Nations Women and The United Nations Population Fund have created reports and guidelines on how to protect sexual rights and promote gender equality in the midst of a pandemic. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres stated that in these times ‘violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safer: in their own homes’. Addressing the audience through Twitter, Mr. Guterres numbered many of the reasons why domestic violence cases are rising at such speed:
- Healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed and understaffed.
- Local support groups are paralyzed or short of funds
- Some domestic violence shelters are closed; others are full.
Also, he explained what governments can start doing to include women as part of their emergency response for the Covid-19 crisis:
- Increasing investment in online services and civil society organisations.
- Making sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers.
- Setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries.
- Declaring shelters as essential services.
- Creating safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers.
Ms. Limón added that in order to report and inform about these cases “it’s important to keep a gender perspective. The first step is to understand that there’s a particular vulnerability due to gender reasons. Another recommendation is to use gender-segregated data when possible to understand and highlight these vulnerabilities. Finally, it is important to distribute information about response strategies (i.e. if there’s a local NGO that has a campaign to specifically target gender-violence during quarantine, it could help to include contact information in an article)”.
How is it like in the UK?
Last year, the UK experienced an increase of 24% in domestic abuse-related crimes compared to the previous year. According to the UK government’s figures, by March 2019 an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse. Around 1.6 million of them were women.
Now, in the middle of this pandemic, some UK officials and NGOs are concerned the numbers will grow higher this year. In the last two weeks, Avon and Somerset police have already reported an increase of 20.9% in domestic abuse incidents, reaching a total of 868.
“I think we are beginning to see a rise in domestic abuse incidents. We anticipated this might happen in the very stressful circumstances for many families,” said Beverley Hughes, Greater Manchester’s deputy mayor for policing and crime, to The Guardian. She also added that there have been reports of domestic abuse linked to the current lockdown across England.
In a very similar position is Mark Groves, the chief executive of The National Centre for Domestic Violence. He also said to The Guardian that: “While the whole country grapples with the consequences of Covid-19, there are huge dangers lurking for victims of domestic abuse and violence.”
On March 31, at least 15 organisations fighting violence against women and girls signed a letter to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, calling for action on the matter, while charities who are dealing with the issue have already reported an increased demand for helplines and online advice.