By Robin Gomes
The UN chief is calling for measures to address a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls, linked to lockdowns and quarantines imposed by governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a video message on Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to his repeated appeals for a ceasefire in conflicts around the world, to focus on the shared effort to overcome the virus.
He pointed out that violence is not confined to the battlefield, and “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes”.
An existing problem
The combination of economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse, in almost all countries.
However, even before the global spread of the new coronavirus, statistics showed that a third of women around the world experienced some form of violence in their lives.
The issue affects both developed and poorer economies: nearly a quarter of female college students reported having experienced sexual assault or misconduct in the USA, whilst in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, partner violence to be a reality for 65 per cent of women.
Repercussion on women
World Health Organization (WHO) research shows that women who experience physical or sexual abuse are twice as likely to have an abortion, and the experience nearly doubles their likelihood of falling into depression. In some regions, they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, and evidence exists that sexually assaulted women are 2.3 times more likely to have alcohol disorders.
87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017, and more than half were killed by intimate partners or family members.
Shockingly, violence against women is as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
Surge in violence in pandemic
Since the pandemic, the UN is reporting that Lebanon and Malaysia, for example, have seen the number of calls to helplines double, compared with the same month last year; in China they have tripled; and in Australia, search engines such as Google are seeing the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help in the past five years. (Source: UN)
Calls to the helpline of Spain’s semi-autonomous Catalonia region had risen by 20% in the first few days of the lockdown; a similar hotline in Cyprus saw a 30% rise in the week after its first coronavirus case was reported on 9 March.
The situation is unknown in countries that lack reporting systems, where the vulnerability of women and girls is expected to be higher. Responding to the rise in violence is further complicated by the fact that institutions are already under a huge strain from the demands of dealing with the pandemic.
Overwhelmed by Covid-19
“Healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed and understaffed”, said Guterres, “local support groups are paralyzed or short of funds. Some domestic violence shelters are closed; others are full”.
The UN chief urged all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19, and outlined several actions that can be taken to improve the situation.
Prevent violence in war and home
“Together,” he said, “we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat COVID-19”.
In a tweet on Monday Guterres wrote: “Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes. Today I appeal for peace in homes around the world. I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”