GBV and COVID-19: The Shadow Pandemic
Written by: Marina Paredes Jaime
Edited by: Abigail Goh
Illustrations and Design by: Catharina Schultz
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about domestic and sexual violence (assault).
Pandemics have wreaked havoc for many centuries, and in today’s interconnected and globalised world, the pandemic means an unprecedented challenge affecting all aspects of society and the structures that conform to it. In 2020, the global pandemic is arguably the most severe health care crisis faced in the past decades. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been heard in all realms, and have had consequences reaching far beyond those seen in plain sight. For women, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on the struggle for gender equality. While countries directed their efforts to the healthcare crisis presented by COVID-19, the gendered effects of the crisis were not only underestimated but entirely missed out on policy discussions, leading to what the United Nations have called a ‘shadow pandemic’. And it is only now in hindsight, that governments/organisations are beginning to understand the underlying ramifications of the ‘shadow pandemic’. The unintended consequences of the healthcare crisis exposed a pandemic that has long existed: violence on the basis of gender (GBV).
GBV, defined as physical, sexual or mental acts intended to cause harm based on socially ascribed gender differences, has seen a sharp increase since the beginning of the measures imposed by governments to stop the spread of the virus. Whilst all genders can be affected by GBV, it is women and children, as well as individuals with intersecting identities, that are most at risk of suffering it.
Past epidemics have highlighted the need for a gendered approach to the measures taken to overcome the global healthcare crisis. In the face of it, there is a tendency for governments and aid agencies to shift their focus and resources almost entirely to the primary healthcare response, which clearly has an impact on the routine services vital to many people. This aspect disproportionally affects the already vulnerable population. The unintended gendered consequences of the pandemic stem largely from a system created upon unequal structures of power and socially constructed gender roles. For example, the over-reliance on women as healthcare providers (women make up 70% of the global health workforce) and their role as primary caregivers in the household, puts them at higher risk of exposure to infection. Moreover, as primary caregivers, women are more likely to quit their jobs or opt for more flexible times (leading to less stable jobs) in order to care for children or elders in the household.
From the onset of the pandemic, governments issued lockdown orders, social distancing obligations and similar measures to stop the spread of the virus; leading a majority of the world population to stay in their homes and adapt their lives to a temporary ‘new normal’. However, the very measures meant to protect the majority of the population have also endangered women at the hands of their perpetrators, more often than not, their intimate partners. The same goes for individuals with intersecting identities. Looking at the LGBTIQ+ community, their invisibility in policy discussions only exacerbates the challenges, discrimination and risks they face during times of crisis. In the household, due to lockdown orders LGBTIQ+ people who face discrimination from family members due to their gender identity are at higher risk of suffering some sort of physical and mental violence. With the onset of some policies, violence has also increased on the public sphere. The introduction of gender-based curfews in Panama or Peru has meant that members of the trans community have seen an increase in transphobic abuse and violence.
The very measures meant to protect the majority of the population have also endangered women at the hands of their perpetrators, more often than not, their intimate partners
Moreover, 2020 has been a shockingly deadly year for hate crimes against transgender people. There has been an increase of 6% in the number of reported murders from 2019, reaching an all-time high of 350 transgender and gender-diverse individuals murdered between October 2019 and October 2020, 98% of those being trans women. COVID-19 has had an impact in the increase of these numbers, as the pandemic has emphasised the lack of protection of transgender individuals, from a lack of legal protection against transphobic attacks, lack of access to primary health care (such as access to hormones or gender-affirming care) to increased poverty caused by loss of jobs.
Thirty-five per cent of all women in the world have at some point experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner. This is more than one-third of women around the world who suffer the consequences of being physically and mentally abused, usually largely unaided by the weak structures implemented by governments, or underfunded initiatives by civil society organisations.
As a secondary effect of the global healthcare crisis, rates of GBV have grown, thus exposing the governments’ lack of structures put in place to protect those most at risk. In France, reports of domestic violence increased by 30% since the lockdown orders on March 17th. In Singapore and Cyprus, domestic violence helplines registered an increase in calls of 33 and 30%, respectively, since stay at home orders were put forward. Lockdown measures, as well as the economic consequences of the pandemic, have had a direct impact in this increase: on the one hand, being confined in often small and closed quarters with the perpetrator leads to more strains and tensions; and on the other, unemployment and financial stress are some of the main triggering factors of GBV.
In addition, the options for survivors of GBV have been drastically reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic; they lack access to safe spaces and physical networks, due to social distancing concerns; healthcare concerns mean that they miss out on routine primary care services including provision of contraception, pre and post-natal care, mental health support and counselling, abortion and sexual health services, and even face barriers in accessing products for menstrual hygiene management; all of which affect the mental and physical wellbeing as well as the potential future of the survivors. Moreover, there has been a disconnect between medical providers, police and members of the judiciary in 2020 in both the Global North and the Global South. This ultimately means that survivors have fewer legal protections and that the chances of prosecution of violent perpetrators to stop recurrent abuse and demand accountability are slim to none.
Because the healthcare crisis has highlighted the weaknesses of the structures already in place to stop GBV, there needs to be a policy reassessment of the measures. This year, many civil society organisations have come up with innovative solutions to overcome the barriers women face when seeking help. Many organisations across Europe have shifted their services from call helplines to online chat rooms; code messages have been established so women can alert stores, pharmacies and hospitals of the situation of abuse they live at home. For example, in the Canary Islands, women can alert pharmacies about a domestic violence situation with a coded message written in their mask that brings the police in to support. In Cumbria, England, police have enlisted postal workers and delivery drivers in looking out for signs of abuse.
Whilst these initiatives aid women in the immediate short term, governments need to identify long-lasting and effective policy solutions in order to end the GBV pandemic. Putting women, as primary victims, at the forefront of the policy assessment is key in order to develop effective policies that have real-life impact. The lack of female leaders in decision-making positions means that their needs may not be properly identified and addressed. Subsequently, governments should make efforts to establish policy change hand in hand with grassroots organisations and institutions led by women, as well as ensuring gender parity in COVID-19 working groups. Statistical figures on people affected by COVID-19 should be disaggregated by sex. Incorporating lessons learned from previous crises is an incredibly effective way to address challenges posed by the current crisis, as they provide hindsight and precedent to out-of-the-ordinary situations.
Gender mainstreaming as a policy approach has yet to be implemented at a massive scale, and its application would ensure the maintenance in the medium and long term of the institutions designed to protect women and ensure their rights are respected in the face of future crises. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres discussed the limitations of governments, and how they should make prevention and redress of violence against women a key issue in states’ policy responses to the COVID pandemic: ‘violence is not confined to the battlefield […] and for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes’.
Crises should not cast doubt on women’s rights, and violence should not be accepted as inevitable during a pandemic, as was the case during the Zika and Ebola epidemics. In a world where one-third of women will suffer violence at the hands of their partners, the importance of urgent action should be obvious, and governments and institutions need to step up to their roles, ‘an existing pandemic that is known to the powers that be has now become a shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. It cannot be a shadow, it should not be a shadow’.
If you are or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and need someone to talk to, please call:
AWARE Helpline at 1800 777 5555 / PAVE Helpline at +65 6555 0390 (Singapore)