Wider than a health issue, the Coronavirus pandemic is threatening women’s rights and well-being, as reports of violence against women surge across the world.
Aljazeera.com reports: “On December 31 last year, China alerted the WHO to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. The virus was unknown”.
Since then, the world has been holding its breath.
At the time of writing – 11 April, 2020 (2300 GMT) – John Hopkins University reported a total of 1,767,855 cases of Coronavirus/Covid-19, of which there are 108,281 deaths and 401,873 recoveries, across 185 countries and territories (and 2 ‘international conveyances’ – cruise liners). And rising. Fast.
These statistics mean that most of us know someone, somewhere in the world who has been directly impacted by Covid-19. Many will have lost loved ones.
Countries around the globe are aggressively competing in the market for global supplies of life-saving medical equipment, face masks, gloves, sanitiser, cleaning products, etc., as they race against time to respond to the staggering, rising death tolls across the world.
Lockdowns, cocooning; social distancing; panic-buying and food hoarding; anarchy over toilet paper; police patrols; home-schooling; TV schooling; working-from-home; Zoom (and more Zoom); virtual tours; shopping queues; mass on-line; drive-thru funerals; endless celebrities’ virtual singing/reading/meditating/ work-outs; and my ultimate (un)favourite – advice from perfect people with a perfect life on how we should be using ‘all this time’ to learn a new skill/play music/read more/become entrepreneurs.
For now our lives are in ‘limbo’ living this ‘new normal’ life, not knowing how long for, or how we could we ever ‘restart’ and go back to our former ‘normal’.
For myself, in this ‘new normal’ I seem to have less time.
Between home-schooling, working from home, endless ‘Zooming’, the 2km radius walk of freedom, hours spent queuing for the weekly shopping and heightened family tensions – there is little time for yoga or meditation – or even Netflix! Forget reading. And oh, how I dream of ‘up-skilling’.
I am, however, glued to the statistics. I wait patiently for the daily briefing from Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer in the HSE. I then head over to Sky News for their updates and go to the BBC to double check their stats. I have now included Al Jazeera to triangulate and get a bigger, global picture.
My addition addiction has expanded to include cases of Covid-19 on the continent of Africa, in countries that were once my home. If there are limited medical supplies in the developed world, where will those supplies needed in Africa, India or Latin America be sourced, and who will pay for them?
But the tentacles of Covid-19 are way more complex than the realities of the statistics – ‘flattening the curve’ to cope with infections, is but one dimension.
The gendered realities of ‘flattening the curve’
Referred to as the ‘shadow pandemic’ by UN Women, an additional public health crisis taking centre stage is the horrific rise in cases of violence against women, or “intimate terrorism” across the world, resulting from the tight government restrictions to our movements. Human Rights Watch note the gendered impacts of pandemics/epidemics in the past, evident from experiences of coping with Ebola or the Zika virus for example, which disproportionality, negatively impacted on women.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently made an appeal for an end to violence across the world reminding us that:
“violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes”, and that “…lockdowns can trap women with their abusive partners”.
This reality was alerted to the world by China’s early experiences of responding to the spread of Covid-19. Hubei province, the epicentre of the initial outbreak of novel coronavirus, reported a threefold increase in incidences of violence against women from 47 cases to 162 in the same period the previous year. France has reported an increase of 32 per cent and in Paris by as much as 36 per cent. In Spain the figures are up by 18 per cent, while the UK, reports a 25 per cent increase.
While there are limited statistics across the continent of Africa, many countries have reported increases in violence against women, for example Uganda, which also notes increases in police violence against women accused of defying lockdowns as they attempt to continue to earn money selling food on the street to feed their families. In South Africa, authorities noted increasing reports of violence against women in the first week of lockdown. Similar experiences are being recorded in India which has reported a two-fold increase.
Responding to the wider impact of Covid-19 across government budgets has limited the available resources for NGOs and charities to respond to supporting women who are experiencing violence in the home. Being in lockdown means that women are with their abusers 24/7 and may not have avenues to report the violence that they and their children are facing. An additional burden is the impact on women’s reproductive health, particularly in developing countries as the health focus shifts overwhelmingly to responding to Covid-19.
Some governments are however, responding to the rise in cases of violence against women. In France for example, government support includes additional funds to shelter women in hotel rooms and finance pop-up counselling centres in supermarkets and pharmacies. In Spain, women experiencing violence in the home can go to their pharmacy and request a ‘Mask 19’, which alerts the pharmacist to contact the authorities. The anti-domestic violence campaign launched by Chinese feminists #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has “gone viral”, which highlights and supports women in lockdown who are experiencing violence in the home. One BBC news reporter in the UK, Victoria Derbyshire, tweeted a photo of the helpline number for the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, which she had written on her hand and which remained there as she read the news.
Violence against women is not the only impact of the ‘lockdown’ restrictions on women. Additional burdens of school closures and working from home result in additional burdens on many women across the world who are also left to home-school children as well as having to continue their own work from home. For some women, their partner’s work takes precedence over their own. Across social media women are documenting the burdens of additional domestic duties and sacrifices as immediate families isolate together.
Women constitute the greatest number of part-time, freelance and informal sector work, which has been hardest hit in the ‘lockdown’ responses around the world. Some women have lost their jobs and are financially dependent on their partner. Also, according to WHO, nearly 70 percent of women are ‘frontline’ careworkers, who are essential staff in the fight against the spread of the virus. Some have no childcare support and yet are required to work, which adds additional burdens on their lives to those already listed above.
While some consider our civil liberties are being tested over restrictions on our movements (some US states are considering suing the federal government over lockdowns) and governments are scrambling to flatten the Covid curve, many women across the world are experiencing a crisis that will continue long after the end of the lockdown as the individual realities of the repercussions of job losses and financial set-backs become all too real.