How can we protect women and children at risk from violence during the COVID-19 crisis?

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People in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially women and girls, are already vulnerable to numerous forms of violence

Worldwide, 1 in 3 women suffer violence within their lifetime according to the World Health Organization. Now that nearly 3 billion people around the globe are under COVID-19 lockdown, victims will be confined for longer periods of time with perpetrators, increasing the risk of harm, including physical injury, emotional and verbal abuse, and even death.   

Social and economic inequality magnify this vulnerability. People in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially women and girls, are already vulnerable to numerous forms of violence by people known to them, as well as by total strangers and state officers enforcing lockdowns and curfews. Inequality is a matter of life and death in these contexts, and its impacts will be exacerbated by COVID-19.

Few people officially report any cases of sexual and gender-based violence, especially in LMICs, and prosecutions for these crimes occur only rarely. Currently, because of lockdowns, curfews, and social distancing, as per WHO guidelines to combat COVID-19, courts are not working at their full capacity. Further, access to support services and justice is lacking because all efforts are focused on addressing COVID-19.

In many LMICs COVID-19 is yet another pretext for perpetrators to exert power and control, isolating their victims physically, financially, and socially. In Kenya, for example, spousal rape is not criminalised or taken seriously. For many people, leaving their homes to avoid the perpetrator would be the only way to escape the different forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Leaving is not a likely option when there is a curfew or lockdown in place.

Across the world, civil society organisations, human rights organisations, police, and charities have warned that cycles of violence will increase during COVID19. For instance, in Jianli County China, three times as many domestic violence cases were reported in February 2020 compared to the same time last year. Increased reporting has been seen in the UK in Avon and Somerset.

Human rights defenders and community health workers in Kenya and elsewhere are receiving reports of increasing victimisation of women and children. The reality is we might never get to know the real number of various violations occurring during COVID-19, especially in LMICs, because victims may be unable to report violations during the pandemic. Resources to support research will be diverted elsewhere, and travel is restricted and banned, making it difficult to conduct high quality research. This current situation allows perpetrators to operate with even greater impunity.

There have been reports of increased violence perpetrated by security agencies too. In Kenya, again, security agencies are using excessive force to enforce the dawn to dusk curfew put in place in the wake of COVID19. As another example, there have been recent media reports of security agencies in South Africa and India assaulting unarmed citizens to enforce the lockdown.  Some state officials are justifying and rationalizing the use of excessive force to enforce the government directives to prevent the COVID 19. 

We have seen instances of state officers enforcing curfews, lockdown or containment violating women, men and children. Worryingly, in the last couple of days we have reports of rape perpetuated by state officers deployed to enforce government directives issued during this period of COVID 19 prevention.

Spikes in sexual violence during periods of national crisis are not new. They were also seen during the 2007-2008 and 2017 post-election periods in Kenya.

One potential additional consequence of the COVID-19 crisis, however, is an increase of violence in domestic settings, such as homes and residences. Hyper-masculinized and traumatized citizens are increasingly being subject to violence by state agencies. Similar to ex-combatants enacting the violence of war when they return home, unarmed citizens who suffer at the hands of state actors may be more inclined to enact violence at home. Economic uncertainty, stressful circumstances, and frustration, owing to the inability to obtain basic necessities, also exacerbate the impact of COVID-19, especially in LMICs.

Patriarchal gender roles discourage reporting to the authorities in LMICs. Even worse, victims who report violence are stigmatised by their families and communities, and may be alienated. They risk losing social and economic support, putting them at further risk of violence. Victims also fear retribution by the perpetrator, and abuse by local authorities. Human rights defenders fear there will be an even further deprioritisation of the protection of women and children at risk of violence in LMICs.

Victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in LMICs may face numerous challenges during this period of addressing COVID-19, such as reduced access to emergency services and protection mechanisms, like safe houses, without officially reporting the violation. Consent to prosecute is required for cases involving adults. In contexts where there is a lack of resources and infrastructure to support victims, the focus of domestic violence intervention may be family reunification. Here, the victim and perpetrator are encouraged to return to the same residence, exposing women and children to further risks of violence. Protection mechanisms, such as restraining orders, may also be limited in these countries, leaving victims even more vulnerable.

In societies around the world, single women who have children and are the head of household, are particularly at risk of economic deprivation, especially during the pandemic. The most vulnerable individuals in these societies, who live hand to mouth, may have no choice but to break curfew in order to feed, shelter and protect themselves and their families. During the Ebola epidemic, many girls dropped out of school, and teen pregnancy rates rose. In the Sierra Leone Ebola 2013-2016 outbreak, more women died in childbirth than from the disease because resources were deployed elsewhere.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, sexual and gender-based violence may continue to rise. For instance, post-conflict domestic violence incidents are increasingly more likely to be fatal than as the number of years that a community experiences armed conflict increases. As economic reverberations of COVID-19 continue, especially in LMICs where the economic impacts will be the largest, women and girls will likely have an especially heightened risk of physical danger and loss of life. The protection of women and children is an essential public health policy goal, and should be prioritized during COVID-19.


Dr Heather D. Flowe, Reader in Psychology and Wangu Kanja.

**'Dr Flowe is also an IGI Fellow in the 21st Century Transnational Crime theme, leading the Violence Prevention and Humanitarian Protection workstream.

You can read about her GCRF and IGI funded research into the reporting of sexual violence in Kenya.