Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
A year after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) a pandemic, untold human suffering has become more pervasive and intense. More so among women and girls, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).
“Globally, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months,” UN Women said in a report. “The number is likely to increase as security, health, and money worries heighten tensions and strains are accentuated by cramped and confined living conditions.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, have intensified, UN Women reported.
In Singapore, for instance, helplines have registered an increase in calls of 33%. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25% since the lockdown on March 20 last year.
Increased cases of domestic violence and demand for emergency shelter have also been reported in industrialized countries like Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Big data analysis shows that Internet searches related to violence against women and help-seeking rose significantly during COVID-19 lockdowns in the Philippines and seven other Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, and Thailand.
According to COVID-19 and Violence Against Women: The Evidence Behind the Talk, searches related to physical violence increased significantly between October 2019 and September 2020. Searches using help-seeking keywords increased in almost all countries. Online misogyny rose, including trolling, sexual harassment, and victim-blaming.
“Violence against women tends to increase in any emergency, including epidemic,” said the World Health Organization (WHO). “Stress, disruption of social and protective networks, increased economic hardship and decreased access to services can exacerbate the risk of women suffering violence.”
In the case of COVID-19, “isolation, restricted movement and stay-at-home measures to contain the spread of the infection have a particularly acute impact on women,” the WHO stated.
Antonio Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, is very much aware of this. “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19,” he said. “But they can trap women with abusive partners.”
In the beginning of the pandemic, as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, Guterres said the world had “seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
“The chances of women and their children being exposed to violence is dramatically increased (during the pandemic), as family members spend more time in close contact and household stress intensifies, and the risk grows even greater when families also have to cope with potential economic or job losses,” the WHO explained.
The UN Women calls this phenomenon “Shadow Pandemic.” “(This type of pandemic) grows amidst the COVID-19 crisis and we need a global collective effort to stop it,” the United Nations agency urged. “As COVID-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached capacity. More needs to be done to prioritize addressing violence against women in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.”
Right now, the WHO said that health services that address issues such as clinical management of rape, first-line support, and basic mental health services for survivors are overwhelmed by the urgent need to counteract the effect of the pandemic.
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) defines VAW 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.”
In the Philippines, Republic Act 9262, more popularly known as the Violence Against Women and their Children Law, was passed in 2004. It broadened the definition of abuse to include physical, emotional, and economic harm. It also made violence by an intimate partner (anyone with whom a woman has a sexual relationship) a public crime and made it possible for anyone – not just the victim – to file a case against a perpetrator.
Intimate partner violence refers to “behavior in an intimate relationship that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors.”
Sexual violence is “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.” It includes “rape, defined as the physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body part or object.”
Figures don’t lie. Even before the pandemic began, one in three women experienced physical or sexual violence. In 2017, some 87,000 women were intentionally killed, and the majority of these killings were committed by an intimate partner or family member of the victim.
“The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response,” UN Women said.
In some countries, resources and efforts have been diverted from violence against women and girls in response to immediate COVID-19 relief.
If violence against women and girls is happening in most parts of the world, it also takes place in the Philippines.
“Even before this global health crisis, violence against women was plaguing one out of every 4 Filipinos who is married or has been married at least once in their lives,” said Gustavo Gonzalez, UN resident and human coordination in the Philippines. “We know the incidence and numbers escalate during disasters but one can only estimate what impact this might have on the whole country.”
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said that there had been a 20% increase in domestic violence globally. A study commissioned by the UNFPA approximates that intimate partner violence will increase by 16% in the country.
A survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations, released during the Women’s Month celebration last March, showed that “one of four adult Filipinos have said harmful acts in various forms are among the most pressing problems of women during the present health crisis.”
“For survivors of gender-based violence locked down in their homes with an abuser, the COVID-19 pandemic is only one of the compounding crises that threaten their physical and mental well-being,” Gonzalez said.
The impact of violence against women during the pandemic is even more distressing. “The global cost of violence against women and girls (public, private and social) is estimated at approximately 2% of the global gross domestic product or US$1.5 trillion,” the UN Women said.
“That figure can only be rising as violence increases now, and continues in the aftermath of the pandemic,” the UN Women added. “A predicted rise in the different forms and manifestations of violence against women and girls will not only exacerbate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis but will also slow down economic recovery across the world.”
It must stop now. “Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture, causing harm to millions of women and their families, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“But unlike COVID-19, violence against women cannot be stopped with a vaccine. We can only fight it with deep-rooted and sustained efforts – by governments, communities, and individuals – to change harmful attitudes, improve access to opportunities and services for women and girls, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships.”