On April 5th, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a statement on gender-based violence and COVID-19. “I make a new appeal today for peace at home – and in homes – around the world,” Guterres said.
Violence against women and girls is globally increasing as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, introducing economic and social stressers along with measures to restrict contact and movement. As a result, many women are now trapped at home with their abusers.
While men also experience domestic violence, women make up the majority of victims. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women in the world experiences physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. When there is a situation of crisis, such as natural disasters, wars, or epidemics, the risk of gender-based violence grows exponentially.
While comprehensive data are not available yet, there are already many deeply concerning reports of increased violence against women coming from all around the world. Several cities in the US are reporting jumps in domestic violence cases or calls to local hotlines, some of which recorded double-digit percentage jumps in those numbers compared to previous months or to the same period last year. In France, domestic violence has increased by one-third in a week, and in Australia online searches for support on domestic violence increased by 75%. These data come from countries that have safeguarding and reporting mechanisms in place. It is reasonable to assume that it will be very hard to report cases of domestic abuse in places with weaker institutions, where women are also more vulnerable.
While the number of abuse cases may not rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Katie-Ray Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, supposes, people who already were in abusive situations may face more extreme violence during this time of crisis, and can no longer go to work or see friends to escape their abuser.
Moreover, abusers use exposure to COVID-19 as a threat, exploiting the inability of women to escape or call for help. Social workers report cases where “the abuser was using COVID-19 as a scare tactic so that they would not visit family,” or a case where, “A health professional still living with their abuser called and said they were physically abused that night because their abuser was sure they were trying to infect them with COVID-19.“ Other women are afraid of being thrown out or locked out of their house if they show flu-like symptoms like coughing or fever, while others are too scared of the virus to go to the hospital to seek help for injuries inflicted by their partner.
At the same time, support services are struggling. Civil society groups who support survivors of domestic violence are also affected by lockdown or reallocation measures. Many domestic violence shelters were forced to close or re-purpose as health centers. Judicial, police, and health services are overwhelmed.
After outlining all of the above struggles that survivors of domestic violence are facing, Guterres stated: “I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.” Practical steps towards this effort should include, as is also outlined in the WHO guide, increased investment in online services and civil society organizations, setup of emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries, declaration of shelters as essential service, and ensuring that judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers.
“Together, we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat COVID-19,” concludes Guterres.
For any victims and survivors who may need support, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.