Gender-based violence in the time of Corona
14 April 2020
To date, more than half of the world’s population is in COVID-19 lockdown. For women and children the world over, what is meant to be a protection measure against a so-called ‘invisible enemy’, a different kind of war is intensifying in these ‘safe spaces’ called home.
The purpose of this brief is to remind the public that the cries in the protests against gender based violence of September 2019, when UyineneMrwetyana was raped and murdered, are not forgotten. It also seeks to create awareness that gender based violence is not uniquely a South African problem, but a global one that has increased in the few short weeks of a global lockdown.
A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
On Sunday, 5 April 2020, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, made an urgent appeal for an end to the surge of domestic violence in the global lockdown. Statistics by UN Women show that, globally, in the past 12 months, 243 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to sexual or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, and that one in three women will experience such violence in their lifetime. Gender based violence is the most widespread but least reported human rights violation. It causes as many deaths as cancer for women of reproductive age, and is a greater cause of ill health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.
So drastic is the worldwide increase in domestic/intimate partner violence in recent weeks – an unintended, but direct, consequence of the lockdown rules – that the UN Secretary-General was pressed to make a global plea, not only to governments but to global citizens, to curb violence in the home. This came shortly after his call for a global ceasefire: giving the war at home equal importance. Secretary-General Guterres appealed to all governments to make the prevention and redress of gender based violence a key part of their national response to combat COVID-19.
According to UN Women, French reports of domestic violence increased by 30% since its lockdown on 17 March 2020. Argentina’s emergency calls for domestic violence cases increased by 25% since its lockdown on 20 March 2020. Cyprus and Singapore’s helplines have registered an increase in calls of 30% and 33% respectively since theirs. Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States of America have all had increased demand for domestic violence emergency shelters. The UN reported that the number of calls to helplines in both Lebanon and Malaysia doubled, and that they tripled in China.Tunsia reported a five-fold increase in violence against women, while Northern Ireland recorded a 20% increase in domestic violence. Australia is seeing the highest magnitude of Google searches for domestic violence help in the country in the past five years. The Ministry of Justice in Kosovo reported a 17% increase in their number of gender based violence cases. This is to name but a few countries.
Gender based violence does not discriminate across race, culture, social or economic standing. It is present in developed and developing countries alike. Gender based violence is about power and control. Most often it is perpetrated because of a feeling of disempowerment and lack of control. The perpetrator’s exertion of power and control is always on weaker and/or more vulnerable victims, which is why they are predominantly women and children. Of course vulnerable categories of persons, such as migrants, refugees and the disabled, are more susceptible to sexual and physical violence as their circumstances are more easily exploited. This enables an easy exertion of power and control by the perpetrator. In fact, persons who provide essential services in times of crisis, such as the one in which we currently find ourselves, are not exempt. In the past, aid/relief/essential service workers have been the frontrunners in the perpetration of this kind of abuse through the exploitation of their position or authority, coupled with the vulnerability of the people they are meant to serve. Examples are the abuses perpetrated by essential service workers in the Zika and Ebola outbreaks. Exploitation and gender based violence, therefore, are not spared even in a good cause. The violence does not discriminate between sectors: public or private; non-governmental organisations or state institutions.
In states of emergency (whether in a pandemic or war), gender based violence increases as people feel less certain and less secure, and therefore less in control of their existential world, and less empowered in general. The increased psychological stress around contracting the virus, increased financial stress because of the possibility of job loss, and restricted movement which requires that victims and perpetrators remain in close and constant contact with one another, are just some of the more obvious factors for the spike in gender based violence during the global lockdown. The restriction on movement allows perpetrators easily to isolate their victims from their social and support/protective networks by using the virus as a manipulation tool to trap them in the house. Access to protective and healthcare services becomes more difficult as countries redirect their resources to fight COVID-19. Women also bear the brunt of the increased care work during the lockdown which can disrupt their ability to earn an income. This increases their (financial) dependence on the perpetrator who uses that as another form of control.
As a reaction to the global spike in gender based violence, the UN is imploring national governments to:
increase investments in online gender based violence protection and psychology services,
ensure that judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers during the lockdown,
set up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and grocery stores,
declare shelters as essential services, and
avoid releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women.
Innovative action is also being taken by different countries during the lockdown. In Italy, for example, convicted perpetrators are required to leave the family home, as opposed to the victims having to do so. In France, hotels (which now stand empty in the lockdown) are being turned into domestic violence shelters. In Spain, women can alert pharmacies of a domestic violence situation by using the code message “Mask-19”, which triggers a police response. In the United Kingdom, postal workers and delivery drivers are tasked with having to look out for signs of abuse. In Argentina, all protection orders have been extended by 60 days to deal with delays in the judicial system.
THE DOMESTIC STATUS
South Africa, with one of the poorest track records for the prevention of gender based violence, recorded 87000 complaints of gender based violence in its first week of its lockdown, with 2300 of those complaints having been registered by the South African Police Services (“SAPS”). Separate to the calls received by SAPS, the National Gender-Based Violence Command Centre has received triple the number of calls since the lockdown. More shocking than the number of gender based violence complaints, is the type of violence perpetrated. Three days into South Africa’s lockdown, a 75 year old woman in Pietermaritzburg was gang raped and murdered by a group of men posing as South African National Defence Force soldiers coming to sanitise her home. On 2 April 2020, a 14 year old girl from Dobsonville left her home to do essential shopping for her family a week into the lockdown. She never returned home but was instead found raped and mutilated under a tree in eMndeni Extension. One has to ask why. The nature of violence and, in particular, gender based violence (and even more particularly, during this pandemic) is indicative of a very disturbed societal psyche, with very serious social issues.
In 2018, an Interim Presidential Steering Committee on Gender Based Violence and Femicide (“Interim Steering Committee”) was set up to advise on how best to address South Africa’s alarming levels of gender based violence. To date, a National Strategic Plan to combat the violence is yet to be finalised. Dr Lesley Ann Foster, a member of the Interim Steering Committee, recently mentioned that a ‘safe person model’ was being considered. This model envisages the appointment of a member of each community as a ‘safe person’ who victims can comfortably approach to report incidents of gender based violence. These and other punitive-type measures first require incidents of gender based violence to be perpetrated before they can be engaged. As was mentioned above, the nature and level of the violence perpetrated in South Africa is evidence of severe and systemic social issues which are perpetuated within households. They have rotted away the South African social fabric, which is why punitive measures are not sufficient to address gender based violence in South Africa.
Preventative measures should be the focus for a long-term solution to reduce the violence. Harmful behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, and social and cultural practices must be unlearnt and corrected. It begins with the most impressionable of our society – children – who witness (or who are victims themselves) such violence and who then grow up to perpetuate the violence they see and experience. It is this approach that organisations such as the Helen Suzman Foundation, NACOSA, Young Citizens Action Programme and Fight Back SA are pursuing in the fight against gender based violence. These organisations are currently collaborating to introduce a curriculum aimed at boys and young men, and girls and young women, respectively. The curriculum is designed to eradicate toxic masculinity and harmful gender stereotypes, as well as to promote gender equality. It is designed to teach safe intervention techniques to boys and young men when faced with the perpetration of gender based violence, and self defence to girls and young women. The collaborative aim of these organisations is to have this programme rolled out on a national scale and made a compulsory part of the school curriculum.
Gender based violence is potentially as indiscriminate and contagious a virus as COVID-19. Like the global effort being made to combat and defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, the same effort and commitment is required to defeat gender based violence, which is a pandemic that has been around for much longer.
By Lee-Anne Germanos, Legal Researcher, HSF, 14 April 2020
 UN Women, COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls, https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006.
 WHO, Violence Against Women,https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/violence-against-women.
Ibid fn 2.
The percentage increase is measured against the number of complaints lodged in the same month/period of the previous year.
GBV Centre calls triple during lockdown, 1st for Women steps up to help, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/gbv-centre-calls-triple-during-lockdown-1st-for-women-steps-up-to-help-45995727.
Godin M, How Coronavirus is affecting Victims of Domestic Violence, https://time.com/5803887/coronavirus-domestic-violence-victims/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_term=health_covid-19&linkId=84580838. Staying Safe during COVID-19, https://www.thehotline.org/2020/03/13/staying-safe-during-covid-19/.
Ibid fn4. Gupta J, What does Coronavirus mean for Violence against Women?, https://womensmediacenter.com/news-features/what-does-coronavirus-mean-for-violence-against-women.
Aid and relief work included.
Ibid fn1. O’Donnell M & Others, A Gender Lens on COVID-19: Pandemics and Violence against Women and Children, https://www.cgdev.org/blog/gender-lens-covid-19-pandemics-and-violence-against-women-and-children.
Nombembe P, Hunger, poverty and lockdown adds up to domestic violence crisis, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2020-04-06-hunger-poverty-and-lockdown-adds-up-to-domestic-violence-crisis/.
Elderly woman raped by men posing as SANDF, https://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/elderly-woman-raped-men-posing-sandf.
Evans J, 14-year-old Soweto schoolgirl found raped and murdered after failing to return from shop,https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/14-year-old-soweto-schoolgirl-found-raped-and-murdered-after-failing-to-return-from-shop-20200405.
Government communications on fight against gender based violence, https://www.gov.za/speeches/interim-steering-committee-gbvf-committed-accountable-fight-against-gender-based-violence-6.
On an eNCA broadcast on 6 April 2020.