COVID-19 has given rise to heightened risks and vulnerabilities for women across the world, which have further exposed the deep structural inequalities that women face within their homes and communities including the alarming deficits in social protection. To contain the community transmission of the novel coronavirus, many governments have adopted stringent lockdown measures or issued orders to shelter-in-place, which are much needed public health measures but disregard the fact that home is not the safest place for a woman. As coordinators of the Global 16 Days Campaign since its inception in 1991, we are concerned that these drastic and yet necessary public health measures, the likes of which we have never seen before in our nearly 30 years of campaigning, have led to a surge in incidents of domestic violence in nearly every country across the globe.
Women are at increased risk globally: According to the World Health Organization, one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner. Of the recorded homicides of women in 2017, 58% were killed by their partners or family members, making the home the most dangerous place for a woman. While these numbers are alarming enough to demonstrate that women have been living in a state of crisis for a long time, these numbers are from a period of “normalcy.” The lockdown and shelter-in-place measures have clearly worsened the state of women’s safety around the world. For instance, domestic violence has reportedly increased by 30% in France since the COVID-19 related lockdown on March 17. In Argentina, since the lockdown on March 20, the emergency calls for domestic violence cases have reportedly increased by 25%. Cases of domestic violence have also been reported from India, Kenya, Spain, the United States, Singapore, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Workplace abuse in the home: COVID-19 has also brought to light another form of home-based violence – violence against domestic workers, mostly women, who have been deprived of their mobility and are being confined to homes and abusive situations by their employers. In Brazil, a domestic worker died of COVID-19 after being infected by her employer who returned from her vacation in Italy. This incident has sparked debates on class, privilege and the lack of adequate social protection which, as revealed by this crisis, must be brought to the fore everywhere and start to shape policy.
The wave of protests against femicide: Prior to the advent of COVID-19, the world had started to witness a wave of large-scale mobilizations against femicide. Some of these were protests organized around November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which also marks the first day of the Global 16 Days Campaign period (November 25-December 10). In 2019, women protesters in Mexico, France, Chile, Italy, Turkey, Sudan, Uruguay, Argentina, Honduras, Belgium and Spain marched in the streets, in many instances at considerable risk to their lives, calling for an end to violence against women and the impunity of governments. These protesters were questioning the lack of political resolve of their governments and demanding accountability for their failure to prevent femicide and to bring perpetrators to justice. These failures continue to exist and are accentuated by the current crisis.
Domestic violence violates human rights: Domestic violence is major public health issue and a violation of human rights. It is enabled by impunity resulting in large part from inadequate government action and a patriarchal style of governance that pervades all of our systems. It is imperative, especially at this critical time, that individuals and institutions with power and influence – government officials, national human right institutions, employers, businesses, UN agencies, media, women’s rights and civil society organizations, international human rights mechanisms and others – respect the legal premise that violence against women constitutes a human rights violation and go the extra mile to put it into action.
UN Special Procedures have responded to the current crisis by drawing attention to the human rights dimension of the COVID-19 crisis. With respect to domestic violence, they have clearly called on governments “not to put the protection of victims on hold” and to ensure that protective measures remain available while police “increase their efforts for rapid action.” Drawing attention specifically to the structural discrimination that underlies the regular occurrence of domestic violence, which is now exacerbated by the necessary measures being enforced to deal with COVID-19, the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls has stated that such measures must consider the specific risks faced by women and girls, based on factors such as their sex, gender, age, disability, ethnic origin, and immigration or residence status among others. The UN Secretary-General has urged governments to make the “prevention and remedy” of domestic violence part of the their response to the pandemic.
What we believe and demand: Despite the burgeoning challenges, as coordinators of the Global 16 Days Campaign, we remain committed to advocating for an end to violence against women, in all its forms and in all circumstances, and working with allies to counter the present global surge in domestic violence. The Global 16 Days Campaign ascribes to the belief that a world without violence is possible. Achieving this goal will require a paradigm shift in how we, as citizens, as well as our institutions and governments, choose to understand and approach domestic violence. There is much we can learn from the current crisis if we accept that the time has come to respond to all forms of domestic violence and abuse as seriously and tactically as a life-threatening pandemic. Just like the corona virus, violence against women transcends borders, religion, culture, class, and all other identities: it spans across geographies wreaking havoc in women’s lives. If the current surge is neglected, it might only be a matter of time before it disrupts social, economic and political systems and ravages communities and nations.
Governments must at a minimum introduce measures to:
- Classify those providing emergency assistance- including counseling, shelters, food and legal assistance- to survivors of and those at risk of domestic violence, as essential workers.
- Increase the enforcement of legal measures against perpetrators of violence including the issuance of protection orders and isolate the perpetrators, rather than displacing women from their homes.
- Provide financial assistance to survivors, and those reportedly at risk of domestic violence who may otherwise hesitate to report threats or incidents of violence for fear of economic deprivation. Introduce new schemes to provide in-kind assistance, such as prepaid mobile phones and emergency transportation for women and children at risk.
- Offer targeted economic support such as cash transfers and subsidies to women workers who have lost their livelihood and women managing households, to enhance their security and in recognition of their essential care responsibilities as well as the increased burden of fulfilling these roles in domestic settings under lockdown.
- Recognize domestic workers as essential service providers.
- Strengthen social protection measures for all women including by providing free health care related information, screening, services and counseling, not only for symptoms of COVID-19 but for physical and emotional injuries caused by domestic violence. These measures should extend to the provision of facilities to self-isolate, quarantine or seek shelter and to economic and appropriate childcare support, in recognition of the threats to their survival and well-being posed by both.
- Increase funding for community-based organizations who are at the frontlines of preventing and addressing violence against women in its many forms, and those who may able to adapt their operations to do so as a rapid response, especially in light of the surge in cases and new vulnerabilities.
- Ensure the participation of individuals of different backgrounds and from a variety of sectors, who ascribe to human rights principles and feminist values, in processes for setting policy and making budgetary allocations to deal with COVID-19 and its outcomes. Women must have at least 50% representation.
- Consider adopting additional recommendations outlined in the Feminist COVID-19 Policy Statement, from the Feminist Alliance for Rights, which has been endorsed by more than 1500 activists and organizations worldwide.
The Global 16 Days Campaign remains committed to working with allies across different movements to end gender-based violence in all of its forms. Stay tuned for more analysis and news in the weeks to come about the Global 16 Days Campaign’s planned activities in 2020.
*This statement was released on April 23, 2020, and prepared by: Melissa Upreti, Senior Director of Program and Global Advocacy, and Ardra Manasi, Campaign Manager, Global 16 Days Campaign, at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.