The UN has described the rise in domestic violence globally seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ and a ‘shadow pandemic’. Lockdowns implemented in many countries have left women confined and isolated, making it difficult for them to report or escape domestic violence. The added stresses, tensions and financial insecurity caused by the pandemic are described as exacerbating existing abuse or leading to it occurring for the first time.
Calls and emails to domestic abuse helplines increased significantly at the start of lockdown in Spain and France, and this has been mirrored across the globe in Latin American countries and China. The Council on Foreign Relations revealed that Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, and the United States have reported significant increases in domestic violence since the COVID-19 outbreak and accompanying lockdowns. Anita Bhatia, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Women, told TIME Magazine that “the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.” She added that “while we absolutely support the need to follow these measures of social distancing and isolation, we also recognize that it provides an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.”
TIME was also told by Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline, that “perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick. We’ve heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance.” One woman recounted to the magazine that her husband would not let her leave the house, claiming that he did not want her to infect others or bring diseases home, though she felt it was just an excuse to isolate her.
Of course, the problem was widespread even before the pandemic – the UN has found that 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have suffered domestic abuse in the last 12 months, and around one third of women worldwide have been abused by a partner in their lifetimes. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for them to access usual sources of help or escape their abuser, meaning that urgent action has been needed to protect women at this time. The UN report recommended that national responses to domestic violence during the pandemic must include: increasing resources for services that support survivors of domestic violence and adapting them for the current situation, offering psychosocial support for gender-based violence survivors and frontline health workers, and sending a strong message from law enforcement that violence against women will not be tolerated.
The report praises measures taken in countries such as Canada, France, Australia and the U.K. to boost support for domestic violence centres and support organisations, as well as localities in Spain, Antigua and Bermuda offering innovative online solutions. Argentina and Colombia have likewise been praised for making sure the justice system continues to function virtually and offer robust protections for survivors.
However, not all countries have responded as effectively. Buzzfeed reports that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed reports of rising rates of violence, saying last month that 90% of emergency calls by women are ‘fake’. His government backtracked on a planned budget cut for domestic violence shelters last year after criticism from human rights groups. Jacobin finds that femicides have increased by 137% in the last five years in Mexico, and last year a bill was proposed by the government to reclassify femicides as aggravated assault. In such a climate, it is deeply disappointing that the president would dismiss concerns over domestic abuse as secondary to other issues like tackling corruption.
Mexico, and other countries which are facing a surge of domestic violence, would do well to follow the UN’s recommendations to tackle the issue: allocate additional resources and include evidence-based measures to address violence against women and girls, strengthen and build awareness of relevant services, put grassroots women’s organisations at the centre of policy change and collect data to inform policy responses. But first they must treat the issue with the importance it deserves. Governments face a great number of policy challenges during this public health and economic crisis, but it is vital that domestic violence does not go unaddressed.
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