Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

Why domestic violence has risen with worldwide lockdowns

Gender-based violence did not rise out of thin air with the coronavirus. It has deep roots in our societies

'For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes,' UN head Antonio Gutteres. AP
'For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes,' UN head Antonio Gutteres. AP

We have all been overloaded with a constant flow of new information about the Covid-19 pandemic, whether it is the latest news about the virus, analysis of its implications for our future or advice from medical experts.

But one topic of pre-coronavirus relevance has been making headlines all over the world: domestic violence. Despite its pervasiveness, domestic violence is often taboo and the silence around it is one of the main reasons that it continues to shatter lives.

Unfortunately, it took a global health crisis to raise awareness and grab the world’s attention on this issue. In reality, domestic violence did not rise out of thin air with the onset of the pandemic. It was prevalent in our societies since before the days of the coronavirus. The outbreak has simply brought this hidden problem out into the open, or at least that is the case in Lebanon.

More than 30 per cent of all women in Lebanon have been subjected to some form of violence in their lifetimes. Getty 
More than 30 per cent of all women in Lebanon have been subjected to some form of violence in their lifetimes. Getty 

During times of crises, whether it be a natural disaster, an economic crash or a pandemic, gender-based violence – that is violence targeting women and girls – has a tendency to increase. The coronavirus pandemic is no different. In Lebanon, gender-based violence at home and in public spaces has been amplified not only by the nationwide lockdown but also because of the economic and banking crises that struck the country since November of last year.

These situations exacerbate ongoing problems within the household, and if a spouse or family member is prone to becoming violent, this tendency is only likely to increase as the family’s situation is pushed to the brink.

In five months, ABAAD’s emergency helplines have received the same number of calls as during the whole of 2019. ABAAD is an NGO that aims to end violence against women, and that I head. While this dramatic increase shows women are more prone to seek out our help during this difficult time, some callers have also been reaching out to us to seek advice, psychological or financial support, or simply to have someone to talk to.

Before the lockdown, ABAAD’s 24/7 helpline was mostly used to schedule appointments for face-to-face consultations and services, in addition to emergency calls from women in life-threatening situations due to violence. Today, the helpline has transformed into a means for vulnerable women to break the isolation they find themselves in and find a helping hand.

That is not to say that the lockdown did not lead to an increase in domestic abuse cases.The Interior Security Forces announced an increase of over 100 per cent in reported cases of domestic violence in Lebanon in March 2020, when a strict lockdown was enforced, compared to the same period last year.

But there has also been an increase in the severity of the violence that women are subjected to at home among emergency callers. At least two women who called us said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with coronavirus.

In five months, ABAAD’s emergency helplines have received the same number of calls as during the whole of 2019

To understand this phenomenon, one must go back to pre-coronavirus days. Spouses and family members did not become violent towards women and children overnight with the lockdown. According to the UN, 33 per cent of women in Lebanon will experience at least one form of violence during their lifetime. Yet often, indications of violent behaviour are brushed off, or simply ignored. Our patriarchal societies tend to normalise aggressive male behaviours, and place the blame on the victim. The fact that the government has been slow to act, and that laws in place to protect women and children are rarely enforced, places an immense burden on women to deal with the violence and trauma on their own. Once couples and families are forced to live in self-isolation, they are also forced to live with the consequences of this long-standing issue.

To protect victims of violence and abuse in the household, all relevant stakeholders must pool their resources. Government entities, NGOs and international organisations such as the UN can work together to identify those who are at risk and provide them with shelter or relief.

Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in Beirut. AFP
Activists take part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in Beirut. AFP

Realistic measures include allocating human and financial resources to existing structures that support victims of gender-based violence, as well as developing and promoting remote methods for reporting and counselling to protect victims from potential infection. Prevention, however, is key to helping reduce the number of girls and women subjected to violence. Unfortunately, economic and political hardship are likely to take a toll on Lebanese residents’ wellbeing, resulting in more violence or continued intensification of existing violence, as noted before.

Solving this issue requires a holistic solution that also provides both financial independence and legal protection to women trapped in abusive households. Those who commit crimes against women must be held accountable, and victims protected. We also need a cultural shift, to stop putting the blame on the victim and finding socially accepted justifications for the violence they endure.

Ghida Anani is the founder and director of ABAAD, a women's rights NGO

Updated: May 27, 2020 03:45 AM

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