Violence Against Women and Girls Pandemic and Gendered Dimension of COVID-19

Written by MBBI Member and Consultant Elahe Amani. Elahe Amani has been part of the MBB community for the last 11 years and on the faculty of the International Peace Training Institute.  She is also chair of Global Circles of Women’s Intercultural Network 

Imagine there was a pandemic that globally impacted close to 1.3 billion women and girls at some point in their lives.    Imagine that the economic cost of this pandemic was 25 times more than war and terrorism, and accounted for 4.4 trillion dollars (5.2 of global GDP). Imagine the lack of prevention strategies, and treatment of this pandemic causing the death of more than 50,000 women, 137 women across the world every day.  Contrary to the Pandemic of COVID-19, a recent outbreak, this gender-based pandemic is deep-rooted. The name of this pandemic is family violence.        

The intersection of violence against women, a major public health pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused horrifying 30 percent global surge in domestic violence, heighten domestic tensions and more importantly severely limited the ability of service providers to help victims. As families face the challenges of more tensions, financial uncertainties and other pressures, women, and girls facing more intensified vulnerabilities.  From France to Iran, from Germany to the United State, from India to China “Stay home”, means isolation with an abuser and more control and violence. 

Violence against women is a global challenge and like COVID-19, demand a collective global solution to it.  The political will of the governments and policymakers in partnership with peacebuilders, human rights and women organizations, academics and other public and private entities needed to make a peace-able world at home and in society for women and girls.   Women must have equal representations in all planning and decision-making in combating violence from home to conflict zones as the outcome proven to be more sustainable.   

By the end of March 2020, over 100 countries worldwide had instituted either a full or partial lockdown, affecting billions of people.  This social distancing and stay home directives for many women and girls means being locked down in an abusive place. UN Secretary-General Guterres on April 5th said “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes. I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.” Recalling that he has been requesting cease-fires in conflicts around the world, he warned that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

It was just a month ago on March 8th, International Women’s Day that millions of women filled the streets of the world’s large and small cities to protest gender violence and inequality.  From the peaceful demonstration of mothers of murdered girls in Mexico City to demonstrators in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, from women demonstrations and rallies in the Philippines and  Jakarta to women putting the graffiti of the victims of state violence and detention on the streets of Tehran, women declared loud and clear that enough is enough.  They demanded an end to violence against women in the public and private spheres.

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. “and intimate partner violence in which current isolation has intensified also refers to” behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors.”   

In March 2020the global community also was to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) for two weeks, the 64th Commission on the Status of Women ( CSW ) was to bring more than 15,000 women to New York City to conduct an assessment of current challenges that affect the implementation of the Platform for Action.  

In light of the outbreak of COVID-19, CSW 64 held a shortened session with only the participation of New York-based delegations.  Many civil society organizations, worked on the preparation of this session for more than two years, they were to address failed promises of the states who signed the Beijing Platform For Action ( BPFA)  25 years ago. 

One of the twelve areas of concern in BPFA was Violence Against Women.  Governments committed to taking actions on “Condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women” and to “Enact and/or reinforce penal, civil, labor and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs done to women and girls who are subjected to any form of violence, whether in the home, the workplace, the community or society.” However, 25 years after the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, adopted unanimously by 189 countries, more than 630 million women live in countries where domestic violence is NOT considered a crime.    

In the United State, In the context of domestic violence, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes. Intimate partner violence alone affects more than 12 million people in the United State each year, and 30 to 60 percent of intimate partner violence perpetrators also abuse children in the household.  The Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation in 1994 that directs the country’s response to domestic violence, has been reauthorized in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 but since 2019, waiting for reauthorization by the senate.  The 2019 bill is being opposed by the National Rifle Association as it includes some measures that would tighten gun restrictions on individuals accused and convicted of domestic violence. It passed the House and now faces a battle in Senate. Among its provisions, the bill would make it illegal for individuals who are subject to temporary domestic violence protective orders to own a gun, as well as individuals convicted of misdemeanor stalking. It would also close the so-called “boyfriend loophole” by adding dating partners to the definition of domestic violence under federal law. 

Women face particular challenges due to gun access, as women are five times more likely to be killed if their partner owns a gun. Despite such danger, the US recently watered down the definition of domestic violence to include only physical harm at the level of a felony, excluding psychological abuse, coercion, and manipulation.   

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported that a growing number of callers say that their abusers are using COVID-19 as a means of further isolating them from their friends and family. “Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick,” in an interview with TIME, Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline said, “We’ve heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance.”

Globally, in other countries, with   England shut down, charities have offer online support and urged employers, bank staffers, health workers and neighbors to be extra-vigilant, adding that even a note dropped in a grocery bag could be a lifeline for a woman trapped with an abusive partner.  In Spain’s Canary Islands  and far beyond pharmacists who hear a woman ask for a “Mask 19” know that it is a code to call authorities.  In China, a Beijing-based NGO, Equality dedicated to combating violence against women, Equality, has seen a surge in calls to its helpline since early February, when the government locked down cities in Hubei Province, then the outbreak’s epicenter.  In Germany, some of the hotels are made available to domestic violence victims and German Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged the country to stay indoors, organizations also have voiced fears over increases in child abuse while schools remain closed.  In  Iran according to IRNA, the official news agency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the calls seeking support for domestic violence have increased by more than 30 percent. 

As Arundhati Roy said “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt as nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.  Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.  We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Let us imagine a more peace-able world, let us imagine a world that women’s human rights and dignity respected, let us imagine a world more equitable and just for the whole human race!