The unprecedented global measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have led to many unintended consequences. One such measure is lockdowns, which are proving to be stressful on individuals due to the long weeks of home confinement. For many women this abnormal existence is compounded by the additional stress of being subjected to violent abuse by their husbands or partners who are confined with them, a case of double jeopardy.
Since the introduction of lockdowns there has been a dramatic increase in domestic and gender-based violence, with reports of a 30% increase in gender-based violence in France; 25% in Argentina; 30% in Cyprus; and 33 % in Singapore. At the same time there has been a reported surge in the need for domestic shelters in countries like Canada, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States. Gender-based violence is not a new phenomenon. It is considered to be one of the most widespread of human rights abuse, yet it remains largely unrecorded. Alarmingly, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one out of three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. At the same time, it is well documented that during crises like wars, natural disasters and epidemics, women’s vulnerabilities, as a result of their inequalities, are amplified.
Globally COVID-19 has significantly altered daily life. With countries declaring states of emergency, and instituting national lockdowns, supported by the military and police, citizens are confined to their homes, which has exacerbated domestic and gender-based violence. Confined to the home, many women and girls find themselves in close, and constant, proximity to their potential abusers – dangerous intimate partners and family members – whose coercive and physically violent tendencies are highly enabled during this time.
#C19ConflictMonitor: domestic and gender based violence will increase in proportion to the rising tensions in the health, economic and other sectorsTweet
This situation for women and girls is compounded by their inaccessibility to frontline responders and facilities that can best provide care and render support for the impact of gender-based violence on their, health care and reproductive and sexual health. This is in addition to their inability to reach care facilities such as helplines, shelters and homes of safety. Many of these facilities are closed during lockdowns. The few that are open and accessible face the sheer scale of demand which exceeds the support available. At the same time some of these facilities have been re-purposed to support responses to COVID-19 and are not able to assist with cases of domestic and gender-based violence. Recognising the dramatic increase, the United Nations Secretary General has already called for ‘all Governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19. Shelters and helplines for women must now be considered an essential service for every country with specific funding and broad efforts made to increase awareness about their availability’.
The emerging trend of increased domestic and gender-based violence during COVID-19 will be an added challenge for countries across Africa. In South Africa over 2 300 complaints were registered, and 148 suspects were charged within a few days of the start of the lockdown. In Tunisia a five-fold increase in violence against women has been reported. More shocking than the number of gender-based violence complaints is the type of violence being perpetrated. In Kenya a 16-year-old victim shared detailed insights of her experience where she was held captive by a man and sexually assaulted for 4 days during their lockdown. She was rescued by neighbours and is now being cared for in a safe house in Nairobi.
During COVID-19, the weak protection systems available to women and girls will not only put them at greater risk, , but may also expose them to the threat of other harmful practices including female genital mutilation and forced marriages, especially for girls in disadvantaged and hard-to-reach areas.
On a continent where levels of governance and political environments vary from fully fledged democracies to countries at war or in post-conflict reconstruction, has led to significant numbers of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the majority of whom are women and girls. They are generally disproportionately vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence with limited access to health facilities. This risk will increase during t measures taken to stem the spread of the virus. This increased risk has to be considered when response strategies are being developed given the weak health infrastructure in Africa and the higher risk posed in refugee and IDP camps.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus does not cause domestic and gender-based violence, but it amplifies the peculiar vulnerabilities women and girls are exposed to in times of crisis. This emerging trend is part of the many unintended consequences that authorities have not been able to fully anticipate when implementing measures to combat the pandemic. The implementation of the lockdown measure requires a gendered approach.
Going forward, there is an urgent need for quality and disaggregated gender data collection, a gendered analysis, a gendered design of preventive measures, and gendered policy adoption and interventions in responding to COVID-19, to mitigate increasing unintended consequences, and preventing the amplification of existing vulnerabilities facing women and girls.
- Women and girls’ shelters and helplines must be adopted as an essential service by countries enforcing lockdowns.
- Funding must be made available for shelters and places of care for domestic and gender-based violence through disaster management budgets, as well as future economic stimulus measures.
- Reporting on domestic and gender-based violence during COVID-19 must be a standard reporting procedure for every country.
- In the continuing COVID-19 context, future planning should take into account a gendered approach.
- The strength of context knowledge at a local and community level must be used to inform responses.