In late March, reports of violence against women began flooding into newspapers and onto T.V. screens as the pandemic picked up speed around the globe. With over half of the world’s population living under lockdown, millions of women were trapped with an abusive partner, cut off from extended family and often with reduced access to support services due to COVID-19 restrictions. For many women, the pandemic equalled a two-fold threat: coronavirus infections and being locked in a confined space while facing danger on a daily basis.
In the past nine months, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic, have intensified, according to the United Nations (U.N). Now, despite the majority of countries around the world tackling the coronavirus head-on, many of those same nations have failed victims of abuse through inadequate planning, funding and attention.
“Men’s violence against women is also a pandemic, one that pre-dates the virus and will outlive it,” said U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a statement to mark the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last month. “It too needs our global, coordinated response and enforceable protocols. It too affects vast populations of all ages.”
Worsening the situation is many governments’ failure to include protection for those abused as part of their COVID-19 response plans. According to data from the U.N.’s COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker, most nations are not doing enough to address the “economic and social fallout” caused by the crisis. Less than a quarter of the 206 countries analysed by the tracker treated violence against women and girls-related services as an “integral part of their national and local COVID-19 response plans,” with very few providing adequate funding for related services.
The global response has particularly failed women and girls in refugee settings and, displaced and post conflict environments, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee. Local women’s groups were critical to maintaining essential gender-based violence support services during the pandemic, it adds.
Set against this harrowing backdrop are ongoing economic pressures and widespread job loss, which have contributed to what the U.N. are calling a ‘shadow pandemic’. In April, the agency estimated that for every three months of lockdown that continued, an additional 15 million women were expected to be affected by intimate partner violence.
Last year, some 243 million women and girls experienced sexual or physical violence from their partner around the world. In 2020, reports of domestic violence, cyberbullying, child marriages, sexual harassment and sexual violence have increased globally, added Mlambo-Ngcuka. The abuse is as global as the pandemic: from Brazil to China, Uganda to Nigeria, its alarming rise has been well-documented.
In the U.K, the British government failed to prioritise domestic abuse in its lockdown arrangements and did not provide help for abuse victims fast enough. At least 16 domestic abuse killings took place between 23 March and 12 April in the U.K, much higher than the average for the time of year, according to the Counting Dead Women project.
Around the world, distress calls to abuse hotlines sky-rocketed, though official data isn’t always clear-cut.
A women’s hotline in Uganda reported a more than five fold jump in the number of average weekly domestic violence cases reported once lockdown started in late March. The British charity Refuge, meanwhile, reported a 700% increase in calls on one single day in April. But in other places, such as Italy, official numbers decreased as women were less able to seek help through regular channels while at home with their perpetrators, say rights groups.
“Sometimes, reported abuse cases are falling dramatically and you would think that violence is going down, but it’s just the opposite,” Christina Wegs, the global advocacy director for sexual and reproductive health and rights for CARE, told the Washington Post in September. “The drop is reflecting that women and vulnerable people are not able to report what’s happening.”
In fact, evidence shows that the pandemic has resulted in significant increases in gender-based violence in nearly all countries, according to UNAIDS, especially for women trapped at home with their abusers.
Data compiled by U.N. Women in April this year across ten countries, including the United States, Singapore and Argentina, showed a heightened demand for access to women’s refuges and other support services this year, while shelters reached peak capacity in many places, made worse by the fact that some were repurposed for additional COVID-response programmes.
In the early stages of the pandemic, some countries did take steps to respond to the warnings of soaring domestic abuse rates. Canada allocated $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, while the government in New Zealand included preparations in its lockdown plans from the beginning (and have since pledged $141 million to domestic and sexual violence services). France, Italy and Spain each set up programmes to house people in hotels if existing emergency shelters were at capacity.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are also plans to support organizations running shelters, while in Colombia and Sweden financial resources are being allocated to support gender-based violence survivors.
There has also been action on the grassroots level. Women have been at the forefront of protests over the past couple of months in a bid to draw attention to domestic violence and demand government action. In July, large-scale protests erupted in Turkey over the killing of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin, a university student whose former partner was later arrested for her murder. Gultekin is just one of 278 women killed in Turkey because of her gender since the beginning of the year, compared to at least 474 in 2019, the highest rate in a decade, according to the campaign group We Will Stop Femicide Platform. The final figures for 2020 are expected to be higher, given coronavirus lockdowns.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine last month, feminist group Femen staged a topless protest outside President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And in Mexico, protests to fight physical and sexual violence have taken over the city, with feminists kicking government workers out of the Human Rights Commission building last month to use it as a makeshift shelter for women fleeing violent homes.
But many fear this could be too little, too late. “The economics of violence are simple and devastating,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka from U.N. Women. “No one gains. Everyone loses, and we have to turn this around. We know what it takes to fight a pandemic. Now we need the will to do it.”