As the world struggles to contain the scourge of Covid-19, there is another virus that has been working surreptitiously, wreaking havoc on communities all over the world. This other virus is not something new.
It has been present from time immemorial in all patriarchal societies, where men have engaged in domestic violence against women.
Home is often the most violent space for women, where abuse frequently goes unchecked behind closed doors.
While we are all focused on the tragedies brought on by Covid-19, domestic violence has crept up silently but swiftly all over the world, making it another global crisis.
Domestic violence has reached such an alarming state that on March 23 the UN SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres gave a speech informing the world of the “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence during this pandemic, bringing with it all the social and economic consequences.
The UN chief appealed to the world community to deal with domestic violence immediately and resolutely. He said that in some countries the number of women calling support services has doubled. Guterres also stated that health care providers and police were overworked and understaffed, local support groups were crippled due to lack of funds, and some domestic violence shelters had to be closed due to financial reasons while others were completely full.
Guterres urged all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for Covid-19. Research on domestic violence shows that when married couples are employed, domestic violence goes down as interactions between couples become less.
However, under a lockdown, there are more interactions and families are forced to remain indoors.
Research further points out that violence against women often functions as a way for a man to release pent-up anger and frustration and also acts as a way to assert his manhood.
The current atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, economic insecurity, and unemployment creates feelings of inadequacy in men.
According to UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “Confinement (under lockdown) is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It is a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors,” She called this violence against women “a shadow pandemic.”
Akin to Covid-19, domestic violence does not discriminate. One sees the specter of domestic violence haunting women everywhere ~ China, India, Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States, among others. Domestic violence increased threefold in China’s Hubei province, which was at the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, from 47 cases in 2019 to 162 this year when Hubei province was under lockdown.
As cities and towns across China locked down, many women found themselves entangled in more heated arguments with their husbands and boyfriends with whom they now had to spend more time in their homes.
There are several media reports showing how these arguments spiraled out of control, often leading to extreme violence, which was perpetrated on these women by their male partners.
The physical violence was not one single incident that began during the Covid-19 outbreak. In most instances, these Chinese women were already in abusive relationships and the Covid-19 outbreak only made things far worse for them.
Since the cities in China were under complete lockdown, the abused women were unable to go outside their homes to seek help. Equality, a Beijing-based NGO, whose goal is to combat violence against women, reported a surge in calls to its helpline since early February when the Chinese Government locked down cities in Hubei Province.
The conditions in India under lockdown are certainly no different from China’s. According to the National Commission for Women (NCW), which receives complaints of domestic violence nationwide, there was more than a twofold rise in gender-based violence during the initial period of the national coronavirus lockdown in India.
The NCW reported a steep rise of total complaints from women rising from 116 in the first week of March (March 2- 8) to 257 in the final week (March 23-April 1) when the lockdown was in full effect.
In an article in Outlook titled: “Blame It on Covid-19: Domestic Violence on the Rise. Are Men Putting More Pressure on Women?” NCW chief Rekha Sharma was quoted as saying, “Domestic violence cases have doubled than what it was before the lockdown. The cases of domestic violence are high in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab.”
According to Sharma, the main reason for the rise of domestic violence is because men are at home now and they are taking out their frustration on women and refuse to participate in domestic work.
Sharma also painted the same scenario as China, where Indian women are now confined to the four walls of the house and don’t have the opportunity to share their predicament with anybody.
The victims are also scared of complaining to the police because they fear that the physical abuse will increase. Domestic violence was found to be even worse in the poorer section of Indian society, especially after lockdown.
Several psychologists have observed that men from the poorer sections of society who are alcoholics have turned violent when they found that they couldn’t get alcohol or couldn’t go to work but must remain cooped up with their families in a tiny room in their shanties under lockdown.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have also witnessed a dramatic increase in recorded cases of violence against women all over Europe.
When the lockdown began in Italy in early March, domestic violence reports began to rise, but there was nowhere for desperate women to go. Shelters often refused to take them because the risk of infection was too great. The situation in France was equally bad.
When France announced its lockdown in early March, the reports of violence against women started soaring. In the first week of France’s lockdown, authorities reported a more than 30 per cent rise in the country’s domestic violence cases with a 36 per cent increase in Paris.
Although the French Government had put a number of protective measures in place to make it easier for victims to report such abuses, very few took advantage of these policies.
In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 per cent more calls in the first two weeks of the lockdown than in the same period a month earlier.
Though there are no official figures, women’s rights activists in Turkey point out that there has been a rapid increase domestic violence during the lockdown.
As a result of the lockdown in Turkey, men are staying at home more than usual and women and children who are subjected to domestic violence cannot escape. In the United Kingdom, there were at least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings and as many as 4,093 domestic abuse arrests in London since the start of the COVID-19 restrictions in March, with an average of nearly 100 calls a day to the help centers.
In the United States, reports indicate a rapid rise in domestic violence in several cities after the lockdown.
For example, in Seattle, which was one of the first cities to have a major outbreak, state officials saw a 21 per cent increase in domestic violence reports in March.
In Texas, there was a 35 per cent increase in domestic violence during the month of March. While there are no accurate numbers readily available for the other cities in the United States, state officials and NGOs dealing in domestic violence are all pointing to a sharp increase in domestic violence against women, which has now become more severe and more dangerous amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While Covid-19 has posed an unprecedented threat to all of us, we must not forget that there is also a “shadow” pandemic, which is silently transforming our homes into sites of terror for countless women worldwide.
We must also remember that many of these victims are now trapped in their homes with their perpetrators. Since there is a lockdown, they don’t have the choice to go out and seek help. They are also not in a position to make calls to their friends or family or move to a safe house.
Their situation is grim, desperate and calls for a swift action.
This is why the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, recently exhorted us to help create safe ways for women to seek support without alerting their abusers, set up emergency warning systems for abused women and easy access to pharmacies and food stores, increase spending for online services and civil society organizations to help those abused, and declare shelters an essential service.