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As the Virus Unleashes Violence, Women in War-torn Countries Organize

We need a global plan to address the predictable rise in gender-based violence that COVID-19 is triggering.

Even before COVID-19, domestic violence was already a global emergency. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Even before COVID-19, domestic violence was already a global emergency. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

You can now google lists of rich and famous people who have been infected with coronavirus, leading some to comment that COVID-19 is an equal-opportunity disease. But while the virus itself doesn’t discriminate, responses to it have reinforced inequality, leaving more people exposed to widespread abuses, including domestic violence. 

From a hurricane in New Orleans to war in Syria, domestic violence increases when communities face crisis. We should know that COVID-19 is no exception. Stress and anxiety brought on by the outbreak can leave an abuser feeling out of control, triggering violence. And the measures we’ve taken to control the disease create more danger. Distancing from those outside the family reinforces the isolation that abusers impose. Suspension of work means many more hours of exposure to violence at home. Lockdown cuts off avenues of escape.

We’ve begun to see reports about the pandemic triggering domestic violence in some of the world’s centers of power. France and the U.S. for example, are reporting spikes in domestic violence calls to hotlines. In China, the number of cases reported to police nearly tripled in February, the peak month for COVID-19, compared to last year. But few responses recognize that the threat of domestic violence is compounded in countries already battered by war or economic ruin, where governance is weak, services are inadequate, and healthcare systems are even more ghastly than in the US.  

In early March, the World Health Organization announced that the last Ebola patient in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was discharged—a major milestone in the fight against one of the world’s deadliest viruses. Only days later, the DRC reported its first case of COVID-19. The virus is likely to spread like wildfire in communities with weak healthcare infrastructure, where poverty is grinding and warfare is ongoing. And riding on the coattails of the virus is domestic violence. With movement in the capital city of Kinshasa intermittently curtailed, women’s rights groups say that many more women are now seeking help.

Drawing on bitter lessons from the Ebola outbreak, Congolese women’s rights advocates are acutely aware that intimate partner violence increases with calamity. In a country challenged by the lack of services for abused women, and a legal system that fails to fully criminalize, must less prosecute, domestic violence, activists are wisely focusing on prevention. 

Nearly half of all women in the world have experienced psychological violence. It’s been called "the most widespread but among the least reported human rights abuses."

They’ve organized social media campaigns, asking community leaders to speak out online against abuse. Video clips feature men talking about doing their share of childcare and household chores to promote gender equality at a time when the work-burden at home is increased. Similar segments are planned with messages geared toward helping families confined at home to find healthy ways to vent frustration. And women’s rights advocates are innovating ways to document abuse to make the case for better laws and services to confront domestic violence in the long-term. In this way, they are working to ensure that a more just society emerges from the pandemic.

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Since coronavirus hit Lebanon, groups there have seen a 60 percent jump in domestic violence cases. One local women’s organization is providing vital public health information on how to prevent the spread of domestic violence along with the spread of COVID-19. They’re offering psychosocial support sessions via conference calls and WhatsApp groups, saving face-to-face interventions for high-risk cases.

In Colombia, youth activists are performing online skits to teach non-violent ways to handle real-time frustrations and family conflicts during the pandemic. They’re preventing domestic violence now with methods that have a demonstrated track record of reducing child abuse and youth criminal activity, both risk factors for future domestic violence. LGBTIQ organizations are following suit, providing e-mentoring services, live chats and online hubs for people confined to trans-hostile and homophobic spaces. 

As the world turns up the volume on social media, domestic violence needs to be part of the COVID-19 conversation—and not just in the messaging of local activists. Every government is obligated to prevent and redress gender-based violence, including during a pandemic.

 While the United States wasted time rallying for a UN resolution to blame China for unleashing the virus, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire, supported by at least 53 countries. Afghan, Yemeni and Syrian women had already issued that call as part of their COVID-19 response. They know firsthand that war-torn countries have little chance of success against the pandemic in the midst of gunfire and aerial bombing. In fact, armed groups in Colombia, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines and Cameroonhave taken steps towards a ceasefire. This is a major opportunity in the fight against the spread of the pathogen, especially in places where millions are displaced and hospitals have been reduced to rubble. And it would take little effort to mobilize already trained responders who can recognize, prevent, and address domestic abuse during precious moments of ceasefires. 

Even before COVID-19, domestic violence was already a global emergency. You likely know the stat: one out of every three women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Nearly half of all women in the world have experienced psychological violence. It’s been called “the most widespread but among the least reported human rights abuses.” Those who are targeted with domestic violence, not only because of their gender, but on the basis of overlapping identities defined by race, disability, sexual orientation, caste, or class, faced compounded threat even without the pandemic. Now, mandatory curfews and lockdowns of tens of millions of people, epic, sudden loss of jobs and harvests, and the looming possibility of a global depression threaten to vastly exacerbate conditions that give rise to domestic violence.

UN Secretary-General Guterres is now calling for a global “ceasefire” on domestic violence. The international interventions that follow should look to women’s groups working on the frontlines of the crisis to lead. The emergency responses we take now are seeding the future. We need a global plan to address the predictable rise in gender-based violence that COVID-19 is triggering. As we act at home to keep our loved ones and communities safe, we should take stock of women’s community-based responses worldwide. The lessons we learn from them now can help us get through the worst that is still to come.

Lisa Davis

Lisa Davis is a Legal Advisor for MADRE and an Associate Professor of Law for CUNY Law School.

Yifat Susskind

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.

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