Written by: Simren Sekhon
Edited by: Khushi Karnawat
Illustrations by: Sneha Grace
Content Warning: mentions of violence, abuse & sexual assault
COVID-19 is not just a health crisis; it too is a social and in crisis, one likely to change the course of what normality looks like moving forward. This reality is not singular in manifestation but rather, heavily gendered. However, COVID is not the singular cause of such. Women’s current reality is intricately linked to long-standing systems, namely capitalism and the patriarchy. As the OECD has enunciated, “the COVID-19 pandemic is harming health, social and economic well-being worldwide, with women at the centre”.
Economically, 70% of the global healthcare workforce is comprised of women. In other words, women are leading the health response, and are exposed to a greater risk of infection. Majority of women in Asia and the Pacific work in the informal economy, often as agricultural workers, home-based workers and street vendors, without access to social protection, even in this time of uncertainty. Women also make up about half of international migrants – propelled largely by domestic work, the world’s largest employment option for migrant women.
However, we don’t have to look far beyond the home to understand how capitalist systems further systemic and physical violence against women. Instances of domestic violence have skyrocketed across the world. With the spread of COVID in numerous countries, social distancing has been enforced as part of the effort to fight the pandemic. The repercussions of social distancing on interpersonal relations is of greatest concern here – especially between intimate partners, parents and children wherein the home often becomes a place of fear and abuse. Dangerously, ‘women have to battle the male aggressor inside and the virus outside’.
Within the home, a disproportionate burdening of caregiving duties on women means firstly that they are less able to prevent conflict with their partner and are more vulnerable to psychological violence and sexual coercion. Restrictions on movement and widespread insecurity as a result of COVID can act to encourage abusers, by giving them additional power and control within the home. Job insecurity also induces women’s financial dependence on their partners, which can exacerbate the power of the abuser. This is worsened by the reality that victims’ search for help, protection and alternatives are undermined by the suspension, reduction or reduced physical access to public services and institutions that could otherwise act to help. Evidently, in how capitalism exists today, the structure of labour markets globally has enabled women’s economic models of limited security. Simultaneously, there exists a systemic dependence on patriarchal structures perpetuated by health crises and worsening overall insecurity, especially within one’s own home. The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucuka echoes such, enunciating that victims of domestic violence are “locked down with their abusers, as unpaid caregivers in families and communities, and as workers in jobs that lack social protection”.
1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner, even before the onset of COVID-19. Emerging data from this year not only shows that calls to domestic violence have increased since the outbreak of COVID-19 but that sexual harassment and other forms of violence continue to occur. The myriad of reasons that perpetuate violence within the home link to systems of economic, political and gendered oppression external to it. This is of particular concern for lower-income women, who have been found to be more likely to experience intimate partner violence. To make matters worse, institutions responsible for protecting victims are now strained to respond to increased demand. In resource-limited contexts, nation states have diverted resources and efforts for immediate COVID-19 relief, without regard for the realities of gendered violence that is perpetuated. This negligence is in itself reflective of the patriarchal systems of our politics globally. As the NY Times phrases aptly, “domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic”, labelling domestic abuse as ‘intimate terrorism’.
Judith Herman, a renowned trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School, has conducted research on coercive methods domestic abusers use to control their partners and children. Herein, common tools of abuse bear an uncanny resemblance to conditions induced in the fight against the pandemic. These strategies include isolation from friends, family and employment, constant surveillance, detailed rules for behaviour and restrictions on access to basic necessities. Home isolation, despite being vital to the fight against the pandemic, undoubtedly gives more power to the abuser. If we look at extraordinary events like pandemics and natural disasters of recent history, this is not out of order. Both the rates of domestic violence and severity of abuse was found to increase after the 2011 Earthquake in New Zealand and Hurricane Katrina and Rita, for example. During this time, numerous increases in assault were also carried out by strangers. Wouldn’t it have been useful for leaders around the world to have paid attention to such gendered realities in response to the current pandemic?
In contrast, social media has, in numerous ways, been and can continue to be a space to create safety and security. Not only can victims find solidarity, but also access knowledge and awareness to report their abuse. The Canadian Women’s Foundation, for example, has created the ‘Signal for Help’ – one we should be aware of and keep a lookout for:
Social media has also a key medium within which millions have channeled their activism and advocacy, particularly for sexual-based violence. In May 2020, South Sudanese activists protested the gang rape of an eight-year-old girl; the online campaign #SouthSudaneseSurvivor prompted women to share their harrowing experiences to break the silence on sexual abuse and rape culture in their communities both in the country and the diaspora. In June, the #WeAreTired campaign was started after 2 Nigerian women were raped and killed five days apart. Following the online campaign and nationwide protests, all 36 Nigerian governors agreed to declare a state of emergency over gender-based violence against women and children.
These African countries are not unique in the pattern of increased gender-based violence during the pandemic. In Brazil, according to data from the 180 Hotline provided by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, there was a 17% increase in the number of calls for help in March 2020 alone. Patterns of increase in domestic violence across Europe is also of concern here, with France reporting a 30% increase in domestic violence, and hotlines in Spain receiving 18% more calls than usual within two weeks of lockdown. In Singapore, from April to May, there were 476 police reports filed for offences commonly associated with family violence – 22% greater than the monthly average prior to circuit breaker. In a similar timeframe, calls to helplines doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia, and tripled in China, compared to the same time last year.
In fact, the UN has warned of a “shadow pandemic“, as countries across the world have reported spikes in domestic violence. Let’s be careful with our terminology here, the term ‘shadow’ might imply an undermining of the consistent violence women and girls are at risk of.
To enunciate explicitly, this risk is in fact very real.
As necessary as it is for governments around the world, including the ones named above, to take policy responses to sexual assault against women critically, there are missing steps. Primarily, the need for these responses highlights that measures put in place prior to COVID by these deeply patriarchal systems were ineffective. Furthermore, measures to reduce infection rates of COVID-19 were not applied taking gendered realities into account. The UN found that 20% of countries and territories have no gender-sensitive measures in response to COVID at all. Within this context, we can’t necessarily place social media as the saving grace for all – lack of access to technology remains a barrier for millions of women to seek help worldwide. In fact, numerous reports depict how abusers prevent victims from using digital devices within the home as an additional means to ascertain their power.
The disregard and undermining of violence enacted against women’s bodies is epitomised by Russia’s decriminalisation of various domestic violence offences, wherein legal protections for victims have been removed and so, enables perpetrators of abuse within the family to act without significant penalty. This exists in a context that even prior to COVID-19, 40% of violence crime occurred within families, without even accounting for up to 70% of women who do not report their abuse. The UK too, despite claims that it prioritises the protection of women and girls experiencing violence, have yet to ratify a landmark European treaty on violence against women. The existing Domestic Abuse Bill fails to ensure protection for all women and girls, especially Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women whose persistent inequality perpetuates greater vulnerability and lack of support.
None of this discussion means to ignore that men are also victims of domestic abuse – rather, it focuses on the greatest proportion of victims worldwide, women. In doing so, it seeks to initiate an unravelling of how the systems in which we exist exacerbate gender-based violence.
As we look to the future, it is critical for a diversity of women to be a part of decision-making processes as policies work to respond to the worsening realities of COVID-19, and account for all intersections of preexisting vulnerability. Doing so also requires nation states to ‘acknowledge and link the historical institutionalisation of male dominance to gender-based violence and work towards eliminating the hurdles to women’s right to a dignified life’. Fundamentally, there is an “urgent need to seize this moment and galvanise our collective power to realise human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Feminist movements have long advocated for such - it is necessary and overdue for their words to be put into action at scale. If ever there was a time to work towards a better normal, systems must work to prioritise the security of women and girls’ bodies, within and outside of the home, NOW. As Michele Norris enunciated on Michelle Obama’s podcast, “don’t reach for normal (that was), reach for better”.
To seek help, the following means of support are available in Singapore:
National CARE Hotline (24/7): 6202-6868
MSF Child Protective Service Helpline: 1800-777-0000
Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE): 6555-0390
Temasek Reachout And Neighbourhood Service Centre (TRANS SAFE Centre) 6449-9088
AWARE Women's Helpline: 1800-777-5555
ComCare Call: 1800-222-0000
Tinkle Friend Helpline (for Child Abuse): 1800-274-4788 or www.tinklefriend.sg
Samaritans of Singapore (24/7): 1800-221-4444