Covid-19 and Gender Based Violence

Post-event summary of the 'Covid-19 and Gender Based Violence' webinar, part of the Institute for Global Innovation webinar series on 'Living with the Pandemic'.


Background to the series

The spread of COVID-19 is one the biggest challenges the global community has faced, and our research teams have a key role to play in the fight against it, to reflect on its impact on all aspects of our lives, and to learn lessons from it.

The Institute for Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham has therefore organised a series of webinars, where experts consider the different issues surrounding the pandemic.

The session was first broadcast on 7 October 2020. You can watch the event in full by clicking here.

The ‘Pandemic Paradox’: the consequences of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence

Dr Caroline Bradbury-Jones, Professor of Gender Based Violence and Health

Gender based violence (GBV) is a very broad term, but for the purposes of this presentation we focused in on violence against women.

In many cases of domestic violence – isolation is used as a means of exerting power and control. That might be controlling what he/she does, who he/she sees, what he/she reads – normally limiting outside involvement and using jealousy to justify those actions.

This has been a big problem during the pandemic.

Across the world, both police reports and calls to domestic violence have risen exponentially. The UN described this worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a ‘shadow pandemic’ alongside COVID-19. Global estimates are that cases of domestic violence increased by 20% during the lockdown.

Domestic violence during pandemics is associated with a range of factors, including:

  • Economic stress
  • Disaster-related instability
  • Increased exposure to exploitative relationships
  • Reduced options for support

There are also fewer opportunities for people to call for help. Isolation helps to keep the abuse hidden with physical or emotional signs less visible to others.

We have also seen COVID-19 being used as a coercive control mechanism, whereby perpetrators exert further control in an abusive relationship, specifically in the use of containment, fear and the threat of contagion (Usher et al 2020).

The emerging data (from UN Women) shows that since the outbreak of COVID-19, violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.

  • In France, reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% since the lockdown on March 17.
  • In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines have registered an increase of calls of 30% and 33% respectively
  • Increased cases of domestic violence have also been reported in Argentina, Canada, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US.

In the UK, the mandate was to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives’. This is a sensible public health message, but it does create a paradox in the context of domestic violence. Home is not always a safe place to live – in fact it is often the space in which abuse occurs.

Coming out of lockdown, too, can be dangerous for people at risk of domestic violence. Given that domestic violence is rooted in coercion and control, the relinquishing of control due to eased lockdown may be a trigger for escalating violence.

Governments across the world have committed to initiatives to combat this increase in violence.

What we need to do now is note that we only have an emerging picture of what is happening. We need proper rigorous and robust data, and then to reassess our response to this worsening problem.

Further reading: ‘The pandemic paradox: The consequences of COVID-19 on domestic violence’ – Editorial in the Journal of Clinical Nursing – April 2020

Protecting Children from Sexual Violence during COVID-19

Dr Heather Flowe, Reader in Forensic Psychology

The data on global incidence of sexual violence during COVID-19, much like domestic violence, is still emerging.

While sexual violence can happen anywhere, prevalence is higher in LMICS (low- and medium- income countries) and in displaced, conflict-ridden communities.

Around the world, sexual violence is rarely prosecuted, owing to:

  • A lack of reporting, owing to fear of reprisal, intimidation, and a mistrust of authorities
  • Poor enforcement of laws and policies
  • Mistrust of survivors (testimony must be corroborated by other evidence)
  • Lack of timely and accessible free medical treatment
  • Weak multi-sector collaboration
  • Little budgetary provision for effective post-rape care response
  • A lack of monitoring, data analysis, and research to identify trends, and gaps, which are necessary to tackle misconceptions about survivors and crimes

Something that can be done to help is to reassess how we think about memory evidence. It is key to enabling justice, and sexual violence prevention.

In Kenya, we are pioneering a survivor-centred approach that allows for real-time documentation of sexual violence and the capture of memory testimony. This has already provided us with important insights abouts sexual violence in COVID-19.

In Kenya, estimates are that sexual violence is more prevalent than in most countries. Indeed, 1 in 4 girls report experiencing sexual violence at least once by the age of 18. (Around the world the estimate is 8%)

This problem has been compounded by the pandemic. Schools were closed on 20 March, and a dusk to dawn curfew was imposed on 25 March.

Within two months there were 1,618 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 58 deaths. And yet, in the same period, there were 50 rapes perpetrated by police officers alone, and 8 deaths at the hands of the police.

Our partners in Kenya – including the Wangu Kanja Foundation – have helped us to track incidents (read more).

This is crucial, as the government does not routinely measure sexual violence.

Unless you can show country-specific statistics, there is no real push to make change. So our preliminary report, and ongoing tracking of all states in Kenya, is providing the crucial evidence to support policy change.

The first 400 cases that we have analysed paint a worrying picture. The mean age of children reporting sexual violence prior to COVID-19 was 16. Since the start of the pandemic, that mean age is now 12.

Often, these children are attacked by a neighbour (42%), sometimes coming to the house under the guise of offering assistance. We have also seen a rise in attacks happening within a perpetrator’s home (rising from 20% pre-COVID-19 to 65% during the pandemic). Anecdotal reports suggest this can be under the pretence of providing access to internet/phone, education or other services.

What this problem requires is action, including:

  • Access to safe alternative venues when schools are closed
  • Local measures to ensure access routes for sexual violence reporting
  • Removing restrictions (making it no longer illegal) for survivors to break curfew and access medico-legal services
  • Real-time data collection to identify crime hotspots, the nature of violence, and where services need to be focused.

Further reading: The CARE Project: Building Sexual Violence Survivors’ Capacity to Evidence and Research (C)rimes and (A)dvocate for Effective (Re)sponses

The impact of the pandemic on the lives of Ecuadorian women in science and academia

Dr Silvana Tapia Tapia (Universidad del Azuay, Ecuador)

In Ecuador, 65% of women have experienced some form of Gender Based Violence. During the first two months of COVID-19 lockdown, the support services registered 28% more calls than previous years. Shelters are at full capacity, and there have been 44 known femicide cases.

The preliminary findings from a study on the lives of Ecuadorian women in science and academia make for worrying reading.

17 academics were interviewed in person, and a virtual ethnography was carried on Twitter accounts. A survey is currently underway with the support of the Ecuadorian Network of Women Scientists.

The early data shows respondents reporting quite a bit of emotional abuse at home, be that arguments with partners or by not being not being valued (and taking most of the extra workload).

The social media ethnography highlighted a significant amount of online harassment – a number of insults and threats were seen – and in some cases sexually explicit images or words were targeted at the academics.

The virtual workplace has also proven problematic. Often it has been served to exclude female academics, worsened by the blur between personal and professional time.

However, the research team were surprised to find that most female academics would rather not return to campus – because they are even more hostile environments. Worryingly, almost nobody could identify any support services available to them.

The early findings, therefore, point to a worrying pattern of gender based violence in multiple settings.

Further reading: Women’s Experiences of Using Specialised Courts for Violence Against Women: Lessons from Ecuador – Report, June 2020

Future events

The next webinar on COVID-19 will on the ‘second wave’ – and how it differs from the first. The webinar will run on Wednesday 4 November at 12pm, via Zoom (places limited) and Facebook livestream.

You can follow the Institute of Global Innovation on Twitter @bIGIdeas_UoB.