In the midst of a global pandemic, countries around the world have implemented strict quarantine measures, confining millions of people to their homes and unable to venture outside except for necessary errands like grocery shopping or hospital visits.
Although this protocol has been essential in curbing the spread of the virus and lowering death rates, it’s caused women and girls to become more vulnerable to acts of gender-based violence (GBV)—which includes physical and/or sexual violence, murder, sexual assault and female genital mutilation or cutting—since being quarantined leaves them at the mercy of their abuser (whether that be a husband, father, brother or son).
As such, the current pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and discrimination due to the stressful nature of this time and more limited access to critical support services for women.
Globally, almost 250 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner every year, and this number is increasing due to the high numbers of women in quarantine. As the health, security and financial concerns caused by the coronavirus force families to lock down, this kind of self-isolation for women who are in violent relationships means being trapped with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet. These women are locked into a place that is statistically the most dangerous place they can be: their home.
Additionally, lockdowns indicate that medical services and access to support for people facing violence are cut off or considered less important in a health care system overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Although acts of gender-based violence take place everywhere, women living in developing countries are particularly vulnerable for a variety of reasons that include higher levels of poverty, less protective laws for women, and fewer resources and the means to access them.
One key example is South Africa. With almost 10,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases now, the country has the largest number of COVID-19 infections on the continent. South Africa also has a rate of gender-based violence that is among the highest in the world—with a South-African woman murdered every three hours on average.
After coronavirus cases first started appearing, the country started seeing higher rates of gender-based violence—with more than 2,000 complaints of GBV made to the South-African Police Service in the first week of the lockdown.
Similarly, Brazil has seen a surge in GBV that it attributes to the coronavirus isolation, with a potential 40 to 50 percent rise in cases according to a state-run drop-in center.
In China, an anti-domestic violence charity in the Hubei province reported that intimate partner violence has nearly doubled since cities were put under lockdown. Overall, China reports that 90 percent of domestic violence cases in the country are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Offering Survivors Critical Support
Recognizing the increased danger that women may face during this lockdown, some countries have taken measures to identify survivors and offer them critical support. In France and Spain, women who are at risk of facing violent acts can go to a pharmacy and ask for a “Mask-19”—a code-word used to send an alert to the pharmacy personnel about their abuse so they can access protection services.
Meanwhile, China has launched a set of actions using social media to raise awareness and support survivors, including publishing online manuals on partner violence and creating the hashtag: #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic, which has been used more than 3,000 times on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo.
South Africa has recently banned the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, which have been identified as catalysts for gender-based violence. And India has launched a new domestic violence helpline as cases surge in states like Uttar Pradesh.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, the lockdown protocol has proved itself to be an effective method in “flattening the curve” by reducing the rate of infection, causing cities like Wuhan, China—the former epicenter of the virus—to lift their lockdowns and ease restrictions.
Unfortunately, reopening cities are far-off for countries just now facing the full brunt of the virus. At this time, it’s important for governments to recognize the unique impacts that the virus has on girls and women—including gender-based violence—and take action to ensure their safety and well-being during lockdown.
“There has always been gender violence, but this crisis makes it all worse,” according to a representative from a women’s shelter in Rome, Italy—a sentiment echoed by many.
It’s a lesson that countries are still learning: Although restricting people to their homes is saving lives, it’s also putting some others at risk. Women’s issues cannot continue to be ignored during crises like this.