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6 June 2020

The shadow pandemic: 243 million women have experienced physical or sexual abuse in the last year

Lockdown restrictions across the world have only exacerbated existing issues with domestic abuse. 

By Alona Ferber

Five years ago this week, thousands marched in cities across Argentina in outrage at violence against women and girls. The discovery of the body of a pregnant 14-year-old, Chiara Paez, buried in the garden of her boyfriend’s house, was only the latest in a series of high-profile cases of femicide. It took the nascent Ni Una Menos Movement from social media to the streets. 

“It was on the day they discovered Chiara’s body that the idea to demonstrate was born; to take to the streets and shout “stop femicide””, wrote Hinde Pomeraniec, one of the journalists involved in that first call to protest in June 2015. “The seed was a tweet in which Marcela Ojeda, a radio journalist, challenged women across the country with a phrase that is already historic: “They are killing us: Aren’t we going to do anything?”

In the ensuing five years that Ni Una Menos [Not One More] has grown and spread across the region, Latin America remains a violent place for women and girls. According to the Wilson Centre, the region has the highest rate of gender-based violence in the world. And as the international community faces the coronavirus pandemic, the evidence points to levels of gender-based violence only getting worse. Domestic violence and abuse have escalated alongside measures to contain Covid-19. This trend has not been limited to any single country. 

An increase in recorded cases or calls to helplines has been reported in places such as Canada, Germany, Spain, the US, Australia, China, Mexico, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian territories, Cyprus, Singapore, France and Argentina. In the UK, calls to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse helpline rose by 49 per cent after lockdown began, as the New Statesman has reported. According to the Counting Dead Women project, in the UK 14 women and two children were killed in the first three weeks of lockdown, the most in any three-week period for 11 years.

UN Women has termed the trend a “shadow pandemic”. In an April briefing, the UN body estimated that 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 had experienced sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months. It said that, during this crisis, such violence would likely “increase as security, health and money worries heighten tensions and strains are accentuated by cramped and confined living conditions”. On 6 April, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic”.

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In May, UN Women published the results of a rapid assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on violence against women and girls (VAWG). “Where there were adequate details, there is an increase in VAWG calls/reports especially to helplines/hotlines,” UN Women found. “It is important to note that current reports on VAWG cases are most likely an underestimation of the real number of VAWG cases and magnitude of the problem. We know from existing data and evidence that the great majority of women survivors of violence do not report to police, helplines or other service providers. The pandemic and circumstances make it even harder for women to report or seek help.”

Lockdown restrictions were “predictably” going to lead to the spike in abuse, says Lucy Hadley, policy and campaigns manager at the charity Women’s Aid. “It’s clear from the survivors we chat to that abuse is escalating and that it’s harder to leave. The control’s got worse, the physical violence and sexual violence has got worse. It’s more repeated it’s more severe,” says Hadley. Leaving a domestic abuser is a highly dangerous time, she adds, “There is a very significant risk of homicide at the point of separation.” Demand for the Women’s Aid live chat support service went up by 40 per cent during the first week of lockdown. In April, the charity circulated a survey online to victims and survivors of domestic abuse. Sixty-seven per cent of those currently experiencing abuse said it had gotten worse since the Covid-19 crisis.

“It’s hell on earth living 24/7 now with my abuser and I can’t get out to escape and put distance between us when I feel tension rising,” wrote one respondent to the survey, which was published ahead of the second reading of the domestic abuse bill. “My abuser is withholding our young child in violation of our custody orders, I have had no contact with my child for weeks”, said another.

On 3 April, Women’s Aid and more than 20 other front-line organisations sent an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging action in the face of this “highly forseeable” uptick at a time of reduced specialist support services. Hadley is frustrated that, additional funding for front-line services, a “hidden harms”summit on 21 May aside, the UK government has not made the issue a strategic cross-departmental priority.Examples include concerns about whether the Track and Trace system will be safe for survivors – many of whom are at ongoing risk of stalking and surveillance from perpetrators who hack into and control their devices – and the fact that there remains no clarity about whether refuge staff can access PPE.

Research indicates that times of economic and social upheaval exacerbate gender inequalities. According to a working paper by the Center for Global Development from April, “crises and times of unrest have been linked to increased interpersonal violence, including incidence of violence against women and children”. The authors documented nine “pathways” linking pandemics and violence, based on a review of existing literature. These included economic insecurity, quarantines, exposure to exploitative relationships, reduced health service availability, and the inability of women to temporarily escape abusive partners. The paper highlighted as an example reports of increased sexual violence during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

If this trend was so predictable, why was it not fed into more countries’ pandemic responses? “Women’s and gender issues rarely make it onto lawmakers’ top priorities lists, unfortunately. And that is largely a function of representation,” says Caroline Bettinger-López, director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Countries have doubled down on testing for Covid-19, but not for offering protection to victims of domestic abuse. Yes, innovative methods of seeking support have surfaced – code words, secret hand signals, hotel rooms for alternate shelter, mobile applications, text-message reporting systems, etc. – however, these barely scratch the surface of what is needed to prevent and respond to staggering increases in rates of domestic violence.”

There are clearly urgent questions regarding policy response and funding, and what can be put in place ahead of a potential second wave of disease and lockdown. But there is a broader question, too: Why does violence against women and children seem so inevitable?

“In so many places, the violence done to women, including murder, are not even conceptualised as crimes. They are ‘the way of the world’ or ‘acts of passion’ and these phrases disclose deep-seated attitudes that have naturalised violence against women, that is, made it seem as if this violence is a natural or normal part of ordinary life,” said Judith Butler in an interview with the New York Times last year. Maybe this is another facet of our pre-pandemic normality that coronavirus is giving us the chance to shift, a chance to “denormalise” the inequalities and violence that societies seem to take for granted.