We have been told to wash our hands, to wear masks, to keep a social distance. Staying at home has been a necessary way of limiting the spread of the pandemic. Yet, another pandemic has been with us at home.
After China’s experience, experts feared an increase in gender-based violence as lockdowns were implemented. Now that deconfinement is underway, it is time to analyse, time to reflect. What have we learned about safety in our homes?
“We were warned this would happen, and indeed it has,” said Jane Garvey presenting BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. In the UK, calls to a domestic abuse helpline rose by 49% and murders doubled soon into lockdown. Sixteen women were killed only in the first three weeks.
In Cyprus, helplines registered an increase in calls of 30%. In France, reports of domestic violence increased by 36%. And in Spain, one of the countries badly affected by the pandemic, gender-based violence services have received over 19 thousand requests for help. In April 2020, the national gender-based violence helpline received 61% more requests than in April 2019.
As the number of reports rose, European governments mostly responded by strengthening telephone helplines, text-messaging and online services. The Spanish Government gender-based violence lead, Victoria Rossell, explained on Spanish television LaSexta that “since a lot of women are stuck at home with their abuser, even making a call to report the situation has become dangerous”. Hence, “diversifying the ways whereby domestic violence victims can ask for help has been key”.
Responding to this need for diversification, in the Canary Islands anyone can walk into any pharmacy and ask for a ‘Mascarilla19’, and a gender-based violence safety protocol is activated. The results caught the interest of countries like France, Norway, Germany and Italy, where similar campaigns have slowly been implemented. In a similar line, Marlène Schiappa, French Secretary of State for Gender Equality, claimed that confinement had forced them to innovate as women have fewer opportunities to access help.
Not every country has showed the same concern
Amid confinement, the Hungarian government refused to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, which, according to them, promotes ‘destructive gender ideologies’ and ‘illegal migration’. In Russia, where domestic violence has been decriminalised since 2017, Tatyana Golikova, deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy, said that she did not think “there will be a surge in domestic violence since families are going through this difficult time together”.
Inadequate responses are not a new problem. As reported by Open Democracy, “only four countries met European targets on shelter spaces before coronavirus” – with Italy 87% short of their estimated shelter capacity, Ukraine 97%, and Poland 99%! (See WAVE’s report.) It is true that Spain and France, where support services for survivors were deemed as essential, are using hotels to increase the number of available shelter beds. Yet, such moves arrive too late and still fall short of the standards set by Istanbul Convention that both countries have ratified.
With Europe entering a phase of deconfinement, experts fear that there will be a surge of violence because aggressors will feel a loss of control over their partner. Therefore, governments need to ensure the protection of women and girls right at each stage of this crisis and into the ‘new normal’. Gender-based violence is not a virus which emerged out of COVID-19, and so it will not fade away as infection rates go down.
Having said that, a top-down approach is not enough. Preventive measures need to be integrated across sectors. And for that, women need to be at the centre of policy change and decision-making processes. We also need comprehensive and standardised data on the gendered impacts of COVID-19. Hotlines and online services must be further developed.
Experts warned us. It was predictable. And because it was predictable, we should have been prepared for it. Now that confinement is being eased, we have the chance to build a future where everyone is taken into account. The question is, are women finally going to be a more equal part of it?
Anna Closas Casasampera is a Women’s Empowerment Manager for a civil society organisation and holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from Kings College London.