Dr. Alaa Murabit – a physician and Global Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, and a recent guest on QF production Doha Debates’ #DearWorldLive series on how COVID-19 has exacerbated violence against women, and what the world needs to do to combat this.
As COVID-19 continues to surge globally and the threat of a second wave is becoming all too real, reports of domestic violence and child abuse are increasing around the world, exacerbating a silent pandemic with devastating consequences: violence against women.
With healthcare professionals focusing on the sheer volume of COVID-19 cases, there is even less attention being paid to women who are suffering the secondary consequences of the virus
Shelter-in-place orders, quarantine measures, and limitations on mobility introduced in an attempt to curb the virus spread have had a unique impact on women, with victims forced to stay at home with their abusers and with little support or shelter and few options. With healthcare professionals focusing on the sheer volume of COVID-19 cases, there is even less attention being paid to women who are suffering the secondary consequences of the virus, resulting in a significant increase to the health risk they face.
According to the United Nations, close to 250 million women worldwide experience domestic violence annually, the majority being Black or ethnic minority women. And according to the UN Secretary General, since the start of the pandemic the number of women calling support centers has doubled. France, Singapore, China, and Argentina have all reported an increase in gender-based violence (GBV) since the outbreak began. However, many countries don’t report GBV statistics, and many of those which have are missing categorization based on socio-economic status, race and ethnicity.
Even so, it is evident that, long before the pandemic, the majority of women suffering were Black or ethnic minorities. In the US, one of a handful of countries that actually breaks down this type of data by race at all, Black women are 35 percent more likely to experience GBV compared to white women, and 81 percent of Asian women reported experiencing abuse within their homes.
Women make up the majority of jobs deemed ‘essential’, such as healthcare workers, grocery staff, and delivery personnel. They are also more likely to live below the poverty line or be dependent on a daily income to support and sustain their family
Women of color, indigenous women, and immigrants all are more likely to experience GBV within their communities, with scores of women unaccounted for as the majority fail to seek help. Poor education, poverty, and lack of resources make women feel helpless, and too often they accept and endure their abuse because of this. Cultural norms influence women's perceptions of their rights, and therefore play a huge role in the underreporting of GBV by women of color. Leaving their partners or getting a divorce is frowned upon at best, or has deadly consequences at worst. This means there needs to be social reform in order for women to be able to even decide to escape violence.
Women make up the majority of jobs deemed ‘essential’, such as healthcare workers, grocery staff, and delivery personnel. They are also more likely to live below the poverty line or be dependent on a daily income to support and sustain their family. This economic strain becomes critically important in developing countries, countries in the midst of conflict, or countries already facing humanitarian crisis, where women were already vulnerable. The rise in violence is so alarming that the World Health Organization (WHO) has even dedicated a section on its website to a Q&A on violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting that this is a health-related issue that women are facing globally.
However, this is not unique to COVID-19. According to a United Nations Population Fund report, pandemics increase the risk of GBV; for instance, during the Ebola outbreak, women and children experienced higher rates of sexual violence. That same report highlighted the capacity gaps in countries with higher levels of conflict. Today, in low- and middle-income countries, the danger of COVID-19 will only compound existing cases of domestic violence and increase the likelihood of death at the hand of a domestic partner.
Globally, we must shift the conversation of domestic violence to that of a public health crisis. This will allow for greater awareness and political engagement
At the forefront, these governments and international organizations and foundations must dedicate specific resources and efforts to preventing and addressing domestic violence and creating pandemic-specific solutions, which can be delivered even at the height of social isolation. In Canada, the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) launched the Signal for Help in response to COVID-19, which is a simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call and can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way. The signal has now been launched by organizations in countries around the world.
While steps like this are needed, even the CWF has said: “The Signal for Help is a tool that may help some people, some of the time…some people do not have the ability to make video calls.”
This brings to light the necessity and urgency of collective, accountable, and immediate actions:
Let’s call domestic violence what it is: a global public health crisis. The rise should alarm us all. It is the silent parallel pandemic of 2020. We need to respond to it as such.