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Locked In and Locked Up: Gender-Based Violence and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ashlee A. Burnett

Global crises have a way of removing the rose coloured lenses from the eyes of the population as it forces us to witness head on the negative impacts of social and systemic inequalities. While issues of violence, lack of healthcare and other basic necessities have plagued territories across the world, there has been an uptick in these social issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Referred to as the “shadow pandemic” by several humanitarian agencies, we must note that gender-based violence is not a shadow, but a fully realised and visible pandemic. 

Reported by UN Women, 1 in 3 women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner. The outbreak of COVID-19 saw governments impose measures to curb the spread of the virus; lockdowns, states of emergency, closure of establishments, and encouraging citizens to stay at home and practice regular handwashing. Like many pandemics in history, we are seeing the effect shutting down can have on a nation’s citizens, especially its most vulnerable.

What COVID-19 has unearthed is the inability of countries to ensure that women and other vulnerable groups are safe and are able to truly survive . In some countries, resources and efforts have been diverted from initiatives aimed to prevent and violence against women and protect those experiencing it, to immediate COVID-19 relief and vaccination programmes.

But what does this mean for people who are stuck at home with abusive partners and family?

Emerging data shows a steady increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19. In France, there has been a 30% increase in Domestic Violence reports. Calls to helplines and emergency lines increased 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore and 25% in Argentina. Trinidad and Tobago has recorded a 300% increase in Domestic Violence reports since the beginning of the pandemic. In Puerto Rico, a state of emergency was declared immediately into the pandemic because of the rising numbers of femicides. It is important to note that these statistics are only records of reported cases. Women, girls and LGBTQIA people are often too afraid to seek assistance as they are stuck home with their abusers. This leads to added harm to mental health. Past research from epidemics and pandemics such as Ebola indicates that there is increased psychological harm when quarantine periods are increased. Therefore the longer the duration of quarantine is, the quality of mental health reduces significantly.

While some governments are offering salary relief grants, workers who make up the informal sector—mostly women—are unable to access these grants because they do not pay taxes. In many Caribbean territories, women are the breadwinners. Now more than ever we see an imbalance of the burden on them within the home. According to UN Women, cases of domestic violence have increased between 25 and 33 per cent in various countries. With the lockdown, helplines are not always fully staffed and shelters—where these are available—may not be prepared to take in survivors. Abuse may also extend to financial control, as many women have to rely on partners and spouses for resources.

This period has seen a rise in the exploitation of migrant women in Trinidad and Tobago. Recently, the International Organization on Migration (IOM) highlighted a story of a young Venezuelan woman seeking refuge in Trinidad. She was being held against her will after having been recruited for sex work. Her wages had been withheld and she had experienced various forms of abuse. Migrant women are extremely vulnerable as they are unaware of their legal rights.

Governments have an obligation to consult with civil society organisations to ensure that the years of advocacy and strides towards advancing gender justice are not all lost. Whilst the solutions to remedy the impact of COVID-19 pandemic may vary there are important actions that we all can collectively take to ensure that we rebuild a society that is inclusive, intersectional and just:

  1. Effective gender responsive economic and policy planning that ensures funds and resources to safeguard women and vulnerable groups are not threatened by health safety measures and COVID-19 responses.

  2. Increased and improved resources for those who have experienced GBV by consulting with civil society organisations and individuals who are engaged in on-the-ground interventions.

  3. Accessible and detailed data collection on the effects of covid protocols on GBV across all territories is also needed to effectively tailor responses to the needs of those affected.

“We can’t go back to normal because normal wasn’t a good place to be in the first place.”- Tivia Collins.

References

Gender-Based Violence, Twin Pandemic to COVID-19 – Nobuhle Judy Dlamini, 2021. (2021). Retrieved 1 November 2021, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920520975465

News, A. (2021). Months into the state of emergency, Puerto Rico finally approves $7 million to combat gender-based violence. Retrieved 1 November 2021, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/months-state-emergency-puerto-rico-finally-approves-million/story?id=77461758

The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19. (2021). Retrieved 1 November 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19

Ashlee Burnett is an Trinbagonian-born writer and advocate, is a 2020 Women Deliver Young Leader and part of the Young Leaders programme till 2022. She/her is the founder of Feminitt Caribbean, an Intersectional Caribbean Feminist NGO where she leads a dynamic and passionate core team and volunteers and that uses education, social good, and conversation to advance Gender Justice in the Caribbean. Currently, Ashlee is the Chair of the Caribbean Women in Leadership Trinidad and Tobago National Chapter (CIWiL) and a CIWiL board member. She is also a member of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust Network. Additionally, she/her has recently been appointed as an Advisor to the Global Advisory Committee for the Caribbean region at FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund.

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