Violence against women and girls is intensifying at an alarming rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, referred to gender-based violence (GBV) in the home as a shadow pandemic: “Confinement under stay-at-home orders is ‘a perfect storm’ for violent behaviour behind closed doors as it exacerbates tensions about security, health, and money.”
Although both women and men experience violence because of their gender, the vast majority of violence is inflicted upon women and girls. In this blog – the first in a two-part series – I focus on women who are “locked down” with an abusive partner as well as those who are facing new types of violence due to increased financial or psychological stress.*
To effectively prevent GBV, we need to understand the complex forces that drive it. This is not a single story of a drunk man beating his wife. Each GBV victim is marginalised in a unique way; a resource-poor woman in India living with a disability faces a completely different reality than a Syrian mother in the UK with an insecure legal status.
This means we need to not only analyse the triggers of GBV, but also identify the factors that make certain groups more vulnerable, while exposing how these factors intersect and reinforce one another. An intersectional approach will allow us to learn from previous experiences, collect relevant disaggregated data and develop effective interventions to end GBV.
The alarming rise in gender-based violence
We know that domestic GBV persists in all countries and layers of society. For many, GBV brings to mind physical or sexual violence, which do constitute an especially pernicious form of this abuse. But GBV can take many forms and may also include psychological and economic violence. Think, for example, of verbal insult, harassment, property damage or restricting access to financial resources or education.
We also know that it increases during times of crisis. For example, based on learnings from Ebola, Zika and HIV, we know that pandemics create an enabling environment for violence against women and girls. Statistics from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic confirm this bleak and troubling picture.
Over the past months, many countries have reported a surge in femicides (female homicides), including Argentina, Brazil, India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. A study by ActionAid shows an explosion in reports of GBV in Italy (+59%), Nigeria, Palestine (+700%) and Bangladesh (+983%) between March and April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In the United States, there have also been reports of men who threatened to throw their partners out when they were suspected to have been exposed to the virus. The COVID-GBV tracker offers live documentation of the rise in violence against women and girls during the pandemic.
The home is not a safe space for everyone
The pandemic is exposing and intensifying existing structural inequalities, with disproportionate impacts for marginalised women and girls. Movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, overcrowding, and stress, stigma and anxiety, increase the risk and severity of violence against women and girls, especially for those who face multiple and overlapping vulnerabilities.
For example, married women risk violence from their husband, the most likely perpetrator of domestic violence. With coronavirus lockdowns, many married women are dealing with increased care burdens and are now under full scrutiny from their ever-present husbands and children. Their vulnerabilities increase with isolation, e.g. when social service visits are suspended or when women lose social networks tied to work or the community.
Meanwhile, living in small spaces – for example, in social housing – can exacerbate existing explosive family dynamics. Increased financial stress can give rise to anxiety, frustration and manifest in violence towards those closest to the perpetrator. And increased financial difficulties mean women might not have the financial independence needed to leave an abusive relationship.
The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities and marginalisation
Overall, women are most likely to feel the full economic impact of the pandemic. For example, in the UK, black and minority women are three times more likely to be in precarious or insecure work, often on zero-hour contracts. Around the globe, women are also overrepresented in the informal sector without labour laws, protection or access to social safety nets.
Age is another important area of vulnerability. For example, one in three women in Belgium over 60 reported elder abuse and 67% of victims live with their abuser. The violence they report spans economic and physical abuse – such as tying up a partner suffering from dementia for their safety – to psychological violence, including emotional blackmail, humiliation, theft or neglect.
Intimate partners are not the sole perpetrators of violence. Women and girls may experience rejection from their family because of their sexuality or gender identity, and women living with disabilities may fear abandonment by their family if they resist their abuser.
Even when a tipping point is reached, and a woman decides enough is enough, she may not be able to access public services for help. Women in remote areas, without safe access to phones or internet have restricted access to services and information. Globally, women are 10% less likely than men to own a phone, and those that do are 23% less likely to have mobile internet.
Women with an insecure legal or migration status may not have access to public services and if they do, they may fear repercussions. For example, even though a moratorium exists for undocumented women to have free access to healthcare in the UK if they show signs of COVID-19, the health sector continues to share data with the home office, which deters women from accessing the health system.
Gender-based violence cannot be addressed in isolation
In reality, most victims of GBV face multiple levels of marginalisation and discrimination, and interventions to end GBV must take this into account to be effective. Part two of this series examines what governments and civil society organisations are doing to curb this shadow pandemic and the steps that should be taken to ensure that these debilitating structural inequalities are simultaneously addressed.
*We focus this blog on violence in the home. However, we realise that women do not only face violence at home. Violence against women and girls is a widespread issue that can take place in the workplace, online, in the streets, in schools and universities, prisons and hospitals. Perpetrators are not only partners, but can be other family members, neighbours, strangers, states or (criminal) organisations (see Watts and Zimmerman 2002). Women and girls experience different types of violence throughout their life cycles from pre-birth, infancy and girlhood to adolescence, adulthood and elderly (see WHO typology of violence against women according to their life cycle).