By Heeya Firdaus
Image Credit: First Post
Referred to as “the shadow pandemic” by the United Nations, domestic violence has seen an alarming rate of increase during the COVID-19 lockdown. Wan Fei, the founder of an anti-violence non-profit in Jingzhou, Hubei, said that reports of domestic violence have nearly doubled since cities went into lockdown. France also reported a 30% increase in domestic violence cases in only the first week of lockdown. India, too saw a ten-fold rise in the number of domestic violence complaints since March.
What started as a tiny cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, in early January 2020 quickly became a topic of concern for the World Health Organisation when it found evidence of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19, the disease caused by this virus, became a global health risk by February, and by March 2020, it was officially declared a “pandemic” by the WHO. Country after the country went into a state of panic as the number of cases grew exponentially and government-issued lockdowns were put into effect. People were ordered to stay at home, transportations became heavily restricted and businesses as well as educational institutions were shut down indefinitely. Millions lost their livelihood and now faced grave financial crises. With millions of people in lockdown, vulnerable groups such as women and children were put at risk as they became trapped with their abusers.
For victims of abuse, home is the least safe place, but with the stay-at-home orders, they remain confined with their abusers 24/7. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined efforts to end gender-based violence by increasing the opportunity for violence and reducing proper protection and prevention efforts. Victims usually look for opportunities to minimize their time at home by spending more time at work, with friends or relatives who are willing to provide them with a safe space away from their abusers. In most cases, they also use the time away from their abusers to reach out for help or register police complaints. However, as they become confined at home, their abuser is empowered to control their every move.
Reports also indicate that a factor affecting domestic violence at this time has increased socio-economic strain and stress fuelled by the atmosphere of anxiety and helplessness during the pandemic. The widespread lay-offs, salary cuts, and price hikes caused financial strains in almost every household and have contributed to an overwhelming feeling of distress. In an already abusive household, these heightened feelings can put victims at a greater risk of being exposed to grievous harm by their abusers, whose tendencies are likely to be escalated.
The global pandemic has also forced governments around the world to go into a frenzy of hastily implemented safety measures. The crisis demands the money and attention of the world leaders, and therefore, it ends up taking away funding and attention that would have been given to domestic violence projects. With countries having to cope with the possibility of a recession, soaring unemployment rates, and widespread contamination, issues like domestic violence have taken a back-seat and fail to appear prominently in policy-making. During this time, governments have immediately put a halt to all other ventures and have prioritized epidemic management. The redirection of resources to COVID-19 related efforts naturally dried up the already meager stream of funding that women’s safety policies and initiatives receive, effectively leaving women in an extremely vulnerable and helpless state amidst a pandemic.
Non-profit organisations that support victims are not only facing a lack of finances but also having to work around the complex government guidelines declared at this time. Many smaller or local organizations that could have provided faster help have been forced to shut down due to low manpower and funds. Due to the restrictions in movement, even organizations that are functioning are not able to reach victims on time. The lack of resources is even more severe in developing countries, like India or Bangladesh, where the support infrastructure itself is weak and underdeveloped. In such nations, the already fragile support system is faced with a greater lack of funds as they do not have strong independent funding and they are also not a priority for the government.
Moreover, several shelters that were used to assist or provide medical assistance to victims have now been transformed into COVID wards, meant only for COVID patients. At this time, even if women can reach out for help despite being trapped with their abusers, the police are often unable to provide the victim with proper assistance. In almost every nation, law enforcement has been tasked with the job of enforcing government guidelines related to COVID. Hence, almost all resources are geared towards the pandemic, while issues of women’s safety are overlooked.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women, has rightly said, “What we need is funding for field workers with PPE to reach communities and check in on vulnerable women. This needs to be a priority, and there needs to be urgent global government funding for this.”
Considering that pandemic conditions are likely to last for a while, governments need to find a way to deal with pandemic management in a way that doesn’t harm other sectors like women’s safety or put them at a disadvantage. Policies adopted to the pandemic need to be implemented worldwide for the sake of millions of women and children who fear losing their lives at the hands of their partners or family members. While it is understandable that the looming threat of mass death overshadows gender-based crimes, for the victims trapped with their abusers, waiting is simply not an option.