Since the beginning of the year, the world has been confronting the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to spread with force and without dispensation. More than 90 countries imposed some level of lockdown, with almost 4 billion people sheltering at home. “Stay safe at home” has been the underlying message guiding mandates on physical distancing in public spaces and shelter-in-home orders, both internationally and in the U.S. Within days of implementation, however, governments faced the reality that home is not a safe place for everyone. In particular, for many women and girls, the mandatory lockdowns and stay-in-place orders confined them with their abusers in dangerous and violent spaces; spaces from which school, work and public streets previously provided some escape. Around the world, domestic violence increased between 10-30 percent within the first weeks of lockdown situations, and gender-based violence also increased.
As different regions are now moving to reopen public spaces and businesses, action is still needed to address domestic violence and violence against women and girls. In early April, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a “ceasefire” on domestic violence and gender-based violence due to its “horrifying global surge,” urging governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as several countries are reopening and have reportedly passed the peak of COVID-19 curves, domestic and gender-based violence is still being reported at high levels, everywhere from Argentina to France, China to South Africa, Canada and the United States. This demands greater attention, because violence against women and girls (VAWG) is for many women more threatening than COVID-19.
And yet, to be clear, ending the lockdown will not end domestic violence or VAWG. Rates of domestic violence and VAWG are consistently high, year after year, in both small and large cities around the world, even as rates of other violent crimes decline. Just in the past year, 243 million women and girls reported being subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner, a number far greater than those who have been infected by the virus at this point.
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Since it most often happens in private spaces and among intimate partners and relatives, VAWG is often considered a “private” matter that is consistently individualized and minimized in public spheres. However, even before COVID-19, VAWG was one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights abuses in the world. One in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In the U.K., two women are killed every week; almost four each day in the United States, and 10 in Mexico; and, worldwide, half of all murdered women are killed by intimate partners.
To be sure, many governments, businesses and nonprofits are raising alarm bells to heighten awareness amid COVID-19. For example, in Spain’s Canary Islands and in Argentina, victims of violence can request a certain color (pink or red) face mask at pharmacies to alert personnel that they need help. Many countries offer emergency hotlines both for victims and for potential aggressors of domestic violence. Across Latin America, companies like Avon and Natura launched the #AisladasNoSolas (meaning, #IsolatedButNotAlone) campaign, to provide assistance and online resources for women and victims of violence.
Closer to home, where we live, the Illinois Department of Human Services will increase the capacity of its services for domestic violence survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic by expanding the Domestic Violence Helpline. The Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault established an emergency fund to support local providers with assistance needs related to COVID-19 in cooperation with the state government. WINGS, a domestic violence shelter provider in Chicago, has moved their safe house residents to rented hotel rooms with kitchens to cope with increasing numbers of domestic violence cases.
These select examples of local and international groups working tirelessly to address the rise in VAWG amid COVID-19 also point to how much isn’t being done to address the root causes and the complex, far-reaching dynamics of gender-based violence and domestic violence. As people work or are forced out of work to stay home, the private spaces where most violence occurs are now more connected than ever to larger public spheres. The stress of COVID-19 on finances and health should not be an excuse for violence, but that is what is happening in the U.S. and globally. Unemployed women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence (IPV). And the economic costs to society of IPV are intense, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that lifetime economic cost associated with medical services for IPV-related injuries, lost productivity from paid work, legal fees and other costs is $3.6 trillion.
Societal acceptance of this violence is evidenced in the primary focus on solutions that make victims responsible for ending gender violence by changing their decisions and behaviors and seeking help. The problem isn’t that there are too few shelters or lengthened stay-at-home orders; the root problems include gender inequality, rape culture, and a failure to treat domestic and gender-based violence as serious offenses.
Large-scale government action is needed to address the root causes of these problems, now and as the world continues to fight COVID-19 in post-lockdown conditions. Importantly, gender equality is necessary for economies and communities to thrive. The connections between gender equality and health, safety and prosperity are many and well-documented.
As states plan for the reopening of their economies while facing health and financial crises of historical proportions, this stay-at-home moment is an opportunity to make broader, longer-lasting efforts to address gender-based and domestic violence that continues to endanger human rights, the U.S. economy and overall community health.