The Invisible Pandemic of Violence Against Women and Children: How You Can Help

Photo by Dimitar Belchev.

By Clara Alemann, Director of Programs, Promundo

While we are all being asked to stay at home across the globe – if we are able to, under the assumption that this is the safest place to endure this pandemic and avoid broader contagion – some people seem to forget that homes are not safe for many women and children. 

As we are all anxiously trying to follow the rapidly evolving news about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to understand how we can protect our families and other members of our communities, we also know, as  has now been widely documented, that another invisible pandemic is silently affecting thousands of women and children worldwide. In the current COVID-19 outbreak, at the end of March 2020, reports from Australia, Brazil, China, France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States suggest a significant increase in violence against women (VAW) and violence against children (VAC). Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women has referred to it as the “shadow pandemic.”

The constant, daily torrent of information and public campaigns developing in response to COVID-19 should take into consideration how they might illuminate this scourge and challenge the unequal power relations and the gender inequalities on which violence against women and violence against children is rooted. Most societies are based on patriarchal systems whereby men have greater access to power and resources than women do, and these gender inequalities are legitimized and perpetuated by restrictive social norms, practices and structures within families, communities, and institutions. 

Moreover, laws and policies fail to adequately address and prevent men’s violence against women or allow women to leave high risk and abusive relationships. Across the world dominant social norms justify men’s violence and male control over both women and children. They allow violent discipline (wife-beating and corporal punishment of children), promote a version of masculinity based on violence and control that uses violence to resolve conflicts, and values family privacy and reputation over help seeking, thus discouraging survivors of violence, who are stigmatized and blamed, from reaching out for help. 

There is no single cause of violence against women or children, nor a single pathway to perpetration, and thus preventing violence requires interventions to reduce the multiple risk factors and triggers. Transforming discriminatory norms and shifting power requires long-term funding and continuing support for organizations working to prevent violence and those providing survivor-centered response to VAW and VAC, which is now more critical than ever.

A recent Center for Global Development report clarifies the main pathways – or associations – linking pandemics to VAW and VAC. Among the most salient of these are economic insecurity, poverty-related stress and negative coping strategies; quarantines and social isolation that generate anxiety and mental health disorders, and result in particular difficulties for parents due to school closures and the disruption of routine education and caregiving services; reduced health service availability and access to first responders, and the inability of women to temporarily escape abusive partners. Women of color, especially African-American women, women with disabilities, and immigrant women and their children are particularly vulnerable as they are disproportionately represented in lower paid jobs with basic or no protection such as paid sick leave, which limits their financial independence and ability to leave an abusive relationship. 

While we need to enforce mandated or optional physical distance, we must find the way to remain socially and emotionally connected, and to find ways to support each other, particularly those at risk of experiencing physical and sexual violence in their homes, while they confront the challenges imposed by COVID-19. Orders to shelter in place or socially isolate, need not be an obligation for women to tolerate violence in silence, to continue living trapped with their perpetrator, or to shoulder the disproportionate burden of care and domestic work, which makes their relationship to paid work outside the home more tenuous

This global pandemic should be an opportunity to ask ourselves, when this is over and we go back to “normal,” what aspects of that normal we want to change. Can we use this moment of collective quarantine to reflect and make normative shifts and practice more equitable, caring, non-violent relationships, where men and women and people of all gender identities share power and care work more fairly, and where all are entitled to live free from violence?  In the short-term, while person-to-person support becomes almost impossible, and many of the evidence-based violence prevention interventions are challenging to implement, what can we do to prevent violence within the family, to respond and support survivors, and to help protect them? 

Here are a few concrete actions based on what has worked in other pandemics and protracted health crises:

  • Strengthen informal and virtual social support networks: survivors of violence of all ages will likely go to friends, family, coworkers and neighbors first for help across diverse settings. Check-in on friends and neighbors who may be in abusive relationships. There are some existing online and virtual platforms to access support networks that can be useful for survivors (some examples are MyPlan in the US, iSafe in New Zealand, iCan in Canada, and SAFE in the Netherlands). Where online platforms are not available, support can be accessed via text-based networks such as WhatsApp channels linked to community-based or issue-specific groups that can help individuals feel connected at times of physical isolation.
  • Share existing resources widely, freely, and openly: Several research and practitioner organizations working on women’s rights have produced, curated, and consolidated a commendable amount of open source resources and information on the gendered impacts of COVID-19, and specifically on VAW and VAC, as well as guidelines to deal with pandemic-related health issues, family conflict, parenting, support children’s emotional well-being, deal with stress, substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as link to services and support networks that need to be shared widely, virtually, by text, radio and other outlets. For example, the District of Columbia Superior Court is working to offer extra support to those experiencing violence, including the extension of existing restraining orders through April. We can all contribute to ensuring that every person in an abusive relationship knows how to safely and confidentially seek help; it is important to remember, however that due to power imbalances in their household, they might not be free to access all services that are available.   
  • Inform the communities with whom you work or live about remote and virtual alternative services (using IT or media to communicate with survivors), publishing information around hot spots, like pharmacies or groceries; if these are the only public spaces survivors may be able to access, they could be key areas within which survivors could report abuse and request help. Individuals can also share information about online tools to protect women during lockdown, reporting processes, hotline numbers and support systems available to deal with violence and mental health services. In the US, safe and confidential help is available through the Domestic Violence Hotline.  
  • Advocate and donate to support training, and finance the vital work and services of specialized VAW/C first responders and emergency shelters to ensure those who are experiencing domestic violence – and are able to leave – have a safe place with physical and mental health services to go to; and to ensure that those services are able to expand and maintain quality support in the longer-run, or, if they do not exist, to build these services in remote, rural, emergency, or low-resource settings. 
  • Advocate and support efforts to expand and reinforce social safety nets that can reduce vulnerability and stigmatization of people currently experiencing unemployment or loss of income due to the closure of businesses. These include: paid sick leave, parental and care leave, personal time off policies, unemployment insurance, direct cash or food voucher payments, and/or tax relief, which are critical in the face of the massive unemployment and economic downturn underway. Consider following and supporting the guidelines set forth in the Feminist Statement on COVID-19 Policymaking which operationalize the need to have a gender-responsive, inclusive, and intersectional approach to ensure access to information, support systems, and resources during the current crisis. Governments, development organizations, and practitioners should uphold the principles of equity, equality, and non-discrimination, centering the most marginalized people – women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, people with compromised health, rural people, unhoused people, institutionalized people, LGBTQIA+ people, refugees, migrants, indigenous peoples, stateless people, human rights defenders, and people in conflict and war zones, and those at the intersections of these identities – in the design and decision-making processes of the preparedness and response efforts they put forward.
  • Support and undertake research to understand the gendered patterns and mechanisms linking pandemics to VAW/C in various contexts. There is still limited knowledge on how violence against women and against children changes during a pandemic, as well as the pathways along which different types of violence occur. This information is essential in order to know how best to support and intervene, as well as to inform policy and program responses to mitigate against increases in violence during and after pandemics.
  • Support organizations that engage men and boys in longer-term interventions aimed to prevent violence: While we need short-term and ongoing, responsive solutions for survivors, we must also continue the longer-term work with men to engage them to critically reflect on imbalances of power and gender inequitable norms and practices, and to encourage the adoption of caring and non-violent practices as well as the equitable distribution of care within the household. For those who implement these programs, consider ways to explore and develop remote and virtual approaches during the pandemic. Link men to resources to reflect on the quality of their intimate relationships, identify areas that might be unhealthy and take positive action. Consider also linking men to virtual platforms where they can engage with other men to reflect about their own lives, their families, communities and social structures, and connect them with resources to address the feelings of lack of control, stress and financial insecurity, as well as mental health and substance abuse that can trigger violence when combined with harmful norms and imbalanced power relationships. 
  • As fathers or male caregivers spending unprecedented time at home with your children, consider stepping in and increasing your share of care and domestic, finding even small moments to connect closely with them. Take this opportunity to talk to your children, and sons in particular, about consent, respect, equality and healthy masculinity; challenge and ask them what they think about restrictive representations of men and women in the media and around them and encourage them to support healthy, gender equitable and non-violent ideals of manhood. Some useful resources to facilitate these discussions can be found here. This is a vital time to redefine how we care for each other. There is a lot that men can do to model respect, equality and non-violent relationships at home, as well as using the moment to call long-term attention on the need to implement the policies and programs that both protect women and children, and engage men and boys in prevention.

While it can feel helpless and hopeless to know that this silent shadow pandemic of violence is taking place alongside COVID-19, there are still things each person can do to support survivors and to contribute to violence prevention. 

The COVID-19 epidemic has shown us that governments can mobilize unprecedented resources to safeguard health and well-being. The pandemic of violence against women deserves the same concern and action – now and into the future. In the same way that COVID-19 has forced a recognition that health systems can never be neglected and under-resourced again, so too can the high rates of VAW during the COVID-19 pandemic force us to demand governments take meaningful and sustained action to address and prevent VAW and VAC. 

Earlier this week, UN Secretary General António Guterres called on governments across the world to take specific actions to address VAW, including: increasing investment in civil society organizations; declaring shelters as essential services; creating safe ways for women to seek support without alerting their abusers; and scaling up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys. These are important measures and constitute a good start, but much more is needed. 

Every country in the world needs a fully-funded national action plan on gender-based violence with strong political leadership behind it. National action plans should include a clear commitment to survivor-safety, survivor-centered services, effective sanctions against those who use violence, and measures to prevent violence before it occurs. 

We must call for violence prevention policies and interventions that address the factors we now know cause or exacerbate violence, including: patriarchal norms and men’s expectation of control over women, children’s exposure to violence, community trauma, economic inequalities, hunger and food insecurity, alcohol outlet density and high- levels of alcohol consumption, and easy access to guns. 

A feminist-inspired framework, focused on collective care for each other and solidarity, backed by evidence of what has worked in previous pandemics and what is effective at supporting survivors and preventing perpetration of violence against women and violence against children in the short- and long-term is what will help end the visible and invisible pandemics. 

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