By Fausta Noreikaite
This article might contain disturbing elements for certain audiences:
– Sexual Violence
In the official Ted conference, which was featured on the ‘Ted.com’ home page in December of 2020, Kemi DaSilva-Ibru said, “for many of us the lockdown was inconvenient… but for some people, though the freedom to get out of the house was not just the matter of convenience, but a physical safety and even life or death”. Even though it is being addressed as an issue of the ‘past’, the current measurements and restrictions of movements are still putting women in a life and death situation.
Sometime ago, I got into an argument with my partner. It was nothing serious; a fight over some domestic nonsense. However, in moments of tension I tend to leave the environment that caused it. This need, of course, would always be conditional: with whom the fight was, whether I am at home or am I a guest etc., but the need to suddenly stand up and leave has been there as long as I remember. That evening I had the same urge to stand up and leave. It was after 9 p.m. Due to the curfew hour, I could not. Then it made me think about women who are trapped in their home, experiencing situations way more serious than disagreements over dirty dishes, laundry, socks or cigarette tips in the ashtray. Women, who have been threatened to face physical abuse, but being trapped at their home, a place that most of us consider to be a zone of safety.
I imagined a woman who just been mistreated, hence leaving her home and finding empty streets and no aces to help. I imagined multiple scenarios. In one of them she is leaving the house, but is stopped by the police, who invades her with another threat, a financial one, thus she has to explain herself and the situation she is in. Perhaps she would tell the truth. In that case, the police most likely would react to her testimony and then possibly contact the abuser. The abuser would possibly spend some time in the police station, perhaps explain to the police officers his reasons, they might listen, warn him and then let him go. Eventually the abuser would come back home and beat her even harder for that she told the truth. In another scenario that my mind went to, that hypothetical woman would not tell the police why she is outside after the curfew, fearing the consequences, fearing the investigation and all the systematic procedures, hence would possibly get a fine for being outside after 9 p.m. She would end up being abused twice that night: by the abuser and the system that was supposed to protect her.
The United Nations says that less than 40 percent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. In the majority of countries with available data on this issue, among women who do seek help, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions, such as police and health services. Less than 10 percent of those seeking help appealed to the police, which shows the mistrust in the system itself and a possible worry that the system will not protect them. For example, in the Netherlands, gender-based violence (GBV) cases are less reported than in its neighboring countries. Andrea Vos writes that studies show “that if Dutch women report GBV, they only do so after the 33rd incident. Many others may feel disinclined to report abuse out of fear of losing their children, because the same organisation that responds to these incidents also deals with child abuse” (Andrea Vos). Then perhaps the same woman, that I was imagining that evening, would choose (for some it is not even a choice) to stay home and suffer, since in either scenario she faces the risks to be systematically mistreated. Due to these imaginations, I started thinking: what are the costs of these restrictions (such as the mentioned curfew hour) that are or were supposed to protect ‘our’ health? Who is it protecting and who is again being pushed in the periphery? And why is the issue itself only in the interest of organizations working with GBV, why is it not treated as another crisis?
Already in May 2020, the United Nations alerted that there is frightening “rise of rape and domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown. Proclaiming a “Shadow Pandemic”” (Drachman). According to Recavarren and Elefante, the domestic abuse killings in the UK “more than doubled during the first two months of lockdown. Drachman writes that Liberia’s Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection “received reports of more than 1,000 cases of sexual or gender-based violence” from January to June. Kemi DaSilva-Ibru in her talk said that “one in three women worldwide have experienced an act of violence. And this was before the lockdown”. Recavarren and Elefante writes that in Cameroon and Nigeria the “loss of economic opportunities has caused women to increasingly work in the informal sector, where they are more exposed to the risk of sexual harassment and abuse”. Kemi DaSilva-Ibru in her talk says that “in more remote areas” in Nigeria “many women had to walk miles to receive any medical care and attention as there was no transportation because of the lockdown”. This is the reality of today world-wide. According to United Nations Women, since the lockdown began, in many nations the emergency calls for domestic violence cases increased. For example, in Argentina by 25 per cent, in Singapore and Cyprus by more than 30 per cent, in France by 30 per cent, Canada, Germany, Spain and the United States, etc. also reported an increase in emergency calls. And the organization in the Netherlands, which “focuses only on women exposed to GBV and receives messages through a chat function, did see a 30% increase in GBV reports” (Vos).
When I read this data, when I constantly learn more and follow the outcomes of the ‘shadow pandemic’, I realize that this hypothetical woman that I was referring to at the beginning of the article, is not at all a hypothetical woman. It is 1 out of 3 women worldwide: it might be my neighbor, my friend who does not dare to speak and I do not see the signs, a teacher, a cashier at the supermarket, a lady I sat next to on the bus yesterday, it is and can be any woman from my reality.
The attempts to prevent gender-based violence have been at crisis for long “with already limited capacities and investment”, hence the increased numbers in GBV reduced “capacity of service providers (health, police, social care, charities) to cope with the demand” even more (UN). Women are trapped at home with the abusers and are “isolated from the people and resources that can best help them” (UN). The UN writes that women survivors of violence faced additional barriers in accessing the services when stringent anti-Covid measures took place. Milou Bouwman in her article ‘violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic’ says that “in many countries the law is not on women’s side; 1 in 4 countries have no laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence”. Though Recavarren and Elefante name the ways in which countries world-wide deal with this issue, the “preliminary findings indicate” that just “several countries have implemented a variety of measures to facilitate survivors of violence access to protection orders, the court system and services such as medical and psychological support, legal aid, hotlines, shelters and housing, and financial assistance”.
In some countries, resources and efforts have been diverted from violence against women in response to immediate COVID-19 relief (UN). As Bouwman says, “the violence that is emerging now as a dark feature of this pandemic is a mirror and a challenge to our values, our resilience and shared humanity. We must not only survive the coronavirus, but emerge renewed, with women as a powerful force at the centre of recovery”. Based on the way many countries are dealing with this issue it is clear that the ‘shadow pandemic’ is of a secondary importance or in many cases not even vocally addressed as a crisis. The marginalization of the groups that are facing physical abuse as a consequence of the pandemic itself is undeniable. Bouwman also stretches out the economic side of the ‘shadow pandemic’, saying that if it will not be dealt with, this ‘shadow pandemic’ “will also add to the economic impact of COVID-19. The global cost of violence against women had previously been estimated at approximately USD 1.5 trillion. That figure can only be rising as violence increases now, and continues in the aftermath of the pandemic”. One of the creditable cases or countries could be Scotland, which released £825,000 for the training of the officers and frontline staff of the Police Scotland so they would be able to adequately respond to and investigate the new domestic abuse offences (Vos).
UN says that sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women continue to occur on streets, in public spaces, but also online. There are more and more people “exposed to cyberbullying and technology-enabled violence and harassment” due to working from home conditions and increased use of digital means (UN). According to United Nations, some groups of women, including human rights defenders, women in politics, journalists, bloggers, women belonging to ethnic minorities, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and women with disabilities are particularly targeted by ICT-facilitated (information and communications technology) violence. Some organizations (or countries) employed certain signals that allows the victim to show that she is in danger, without having to say it verbally. For example, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, somewhere in April, launched a campaign called ‘Signal For Help’, which is a hand-gesture (a tucked-thumb, closed-fist) that people use during the video calls to indicate that they are in danger or in need of help. Pharmacies in France, Spain and Belgium have introduced the codeword ‘mask19’ for victims to discreetly ask for help. Members of the Canadian Women’s Foundation advise to “become familiar with the services that are available in your community to support victims beyond 911, which may make some victim[s] feel less safe”, writes Forani.
Nevertheless, the issue of the increased GBV as a cause of the pandemic is in the periphery of the headlines of the magazines, public conversations or the global crisis itself at the moment. I have noticed that in the first months of the pandemic many publicly known magazines, websites, broadcasters, etc. were publishing information about increased GBV with the screaming headlines of the ‘shadow pandemic’. After some time, the same platforms got silent and never came back to this topic, as if this issue got resolved and many of those who were in danger are not anymore. This absence of knowledge production or publicity makes the issue invisible or keeps it behind the curtains (as the acts of violence itself are). Consequently, many survivors have “limited information and awareness about available services and limited access to support services” (Drachman). As Andrea Vos says, “raising public awareness and providing clear information as well as safe and discreet reporting mechanisms are key to adequately respond to GBV cases”. One of the crucial methods to adequately react and solve the ‘shadow pandemic’ is for the topic itself to not be in the shadow, but to be in the spotlight. And even though GBV was always a marginalized topic, it is important to acknowledge that the ‘shadow pandemic’ is the result of the pandemic, meaning that the strict measures and restrictions that are implied at the moment, enforce the mechanisms of violence and puts vulnerable members of society in danger. While the health-crisis itself is at the ‘center’ of attention, the outcome of this ‘centralization’ is the invisibility of those who need help. For that, it must become one of the primary needs of this pandemic: to talk about it, to listen and to raise the aforementioned concerns on the surface. In the end both the health-crisis and the GBV crisis are the results of the pandemic, hence both must be treated as a crisis.
These are just some of the links explaining what to do in the Netherlands, if you or someone you know is experiencing GBV violence:
DaSilva-Ibru, Kemi. “The shadow pandemic of domestic violence during Covid-19”, TedWomen, 2020, https://www.ted.com/talks/kemi_dasilva_ibru_the_shadow_pandemic_of_domestic_violence_during_covid_19?language=en#t-99468.
Recavarren, Isabel Santagostino and Elefante, Marina. „The shadow pandemic: violence against women during Covid-19“, worldbankblogs. 1 Oct 2020. https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/shadow-pandemic-violence-against-women-during-covid-19.
Drachman, Elizabeth. “Gender-Based Violence on the Rise in the COVID-19 Era”, VITAL, 11 Nov 2020, intrahealth.org. https://www.intrahealth.org/vital/gender-based-violence-rise-covid-19-era.
Bouwman, Milou. “Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic’, NL alumni network, 25 Jun 2020, https://www.nlalumni.nl/article/violence-against-women-and-girls-the-shadow-pandemic/25/05/2020/1081.
Vos, Andrea. “Curbing the ‘shadow pandemic”, KIT Royal Tropical Institute, 8 Dec 2020,
Forani, Jonathan. “Code words, hand signals and social media: How attempts to help abuse victims might backfire”, 16 Apr 2020, Ctvnews. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/code-words-hand-signals-and-social-media-how-attempts-to-help-abuse-victims-might-backfire-1.4899062.