As some countries begin to ease their lockdown policies, there is rising awareness of what has been called the shadow pandemic of domestic violence. Afifa Waheed argues that governments around the world have been slow to respond and that more needs to be done to share effective, innovative responses.
Since lockdown, many countries have reported a spike in domestic violence and, in some cases, online harassment. Victims – most of whom are women – in the world's poorest countries with existing humanitarian crises, appear to be the most vulnerable. "For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest," said UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.
Domestic violence is amongst the many challenges faced by women and remains one of the most significant human rights violations. Mounting data indicates that Covid-19 has only exacerbated existing gender and social inequalities and that domestic violence was a global threat long before the outbreak of the pandemic. The UN estimates that over the 12 months prior to the pandemic around 243 million women and girls have been subjected to violence by an intimate partner or a family member.
This number is likely to increase as the pandemic continues, alongside multiple impacts on women's wellbeing, their sexual and reproductive health, mental health, and ability to participate and lead in the reclamation of our economy. According to Parenthood Federation report, the Covid-19 crisis led to the closing of over 5,000 clinics in 64 countries. Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services could cause a large number of pregnancy related deaths, unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies. As states worldwide begin to reopen facilities with restrictions in place, they also need to shift their focus to preventing violence. Will there be justice for victims of domestic violence if there is impunity for the perpetrators?
Questions also arise as to how much the media mirrors society's confusion and ambivalence about violence against women. Is the media playing a positive role, especially in the age of Covid-19, in dispelling myths and reinforcing information about the true nature of the extent of the problem? Traditional media engages in various methods by which feature stories are selected for dissemination to the general public, this includes focusing on the most violent incidents, or those initiated by women only and otherwise giving in to apathy. “The vast majority of reporting on violence against women was “incident based”, looking at tragic individual instances, but not exploring the issue in more depth,” says the report, Media Representations of Violence Against Women and Their Children. In order to respond, civil society across the globe should now be aiming to leverage the power of social media to induce constructive dialogue, improved awareness, compassion and a plea to end gender-based violence.
Intimate partner violence is not only a human rights violation, but it is also a major public health concern. As these are times of uncertainty, we should encourage innovation and creativity, as long as we proceed with caution. As indicated by Anita Bhatia, Assistant Secretary-General, and UN Women - we need innovative solutions to address this rapidly developing crisis. The impact of Covid-19 could be catastrophic, and to alleviate possible effects, civil society should team up with governments and businesses to develop online tools and apps fighting gender-based violence.
With strict quarantine measures, it has been difficult for victims to seek help, including accessing helplines as families have been huddled together with victims near the abuser. Many are reluctant to speak out for cultural and personal reasons, and for some, tolerating violence feels like a safer option than moving into a shelter.
Some states have responded to Covid-19 with smart strategies from secret codes to grocery store warning systems, to providing safe hotel rooms and online applications. Italy and France have launched an app that allows victims of violence to seek help without the need for a phone call. In India, women’s groups have stepped in, and relaunching of a WhatsApp number that was previously in use by the National Commission of Women but which had been out of service. In Bangladesh grassroots and women’s organisations have reached out to victims through local representatives. Meanwhile, the US – one of the worst affected countries has changed their tactics – introducing silent survivor code, teaming up with local courts to establish online applications and partnering with hotels and setting up text message hotlines.
While the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to be extensive and draining, it is also driving some opportunities for change and collaboration. These innovations, along with more strategic response, must not stop with the end of lockdown.
Afifa is a legal professional, researcher and former UN advisor on social, humanitarian and cultural issues.