If the world can unite to beat coronavirus, it should apply the same energy to rooting out abuse.
The pandemic is gifting us an unprecedented opportunity to take innovative action and comprehensively confront the scourge of violence against women.
We have a unique window in which, as a human family, we are able to boldly address the social ills Covid-19 is unearthing, and redesign and rebuild our social fabric.
In this process of self-examination, we must work to root out the global epidemic of gender-based violence as aggressively as we are tackling the pandemic itself.
The lockdowns expose what many of us have always known – our most intimate spaces, our homes, are not always safe places. Research by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) predicts that there will be at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence around the world in 2020 for every three months that lockdowns are extended.
A “pandemic within a pandemic” has been exposed and we are confronted with the horrific reality that millions of women and children – in every country – are fighting for their survival not just from Covid-19 but from the brutalities of abusers in the prisons of their homes.
Studies indicate domestic violence has increased by upwards of 25% in numerous countries as a result of shelter-in-place measures. Abuse survivors are facing limited access to protective services during periods of quarantine. It is no secret that pandemic restrictions have negative ramifications for adults and children already living with someone who is abusive or controlling, and access to support services are significantly constrained.
Most unfortunate is while the need for survivor support is increasing, justice is proving hard to access. Resources are being diverted away from judicial systems towards more immediate public health measures. In every country, hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, as well as critical legal aid and social services, are being scaled back due to infection control measures. Many courts have closed their doors. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” the saying goes. And Covid-19 just may be the midwife we need to help birth a flattening of the gender-based violence curve. We have an opportunity here for criminal justice systems to be completely overhauled to fight gender-based violence.
A UN Women report shows countries from Kenya to Trinidad are supporting justice systems to continue using remote technologies and other protective measures. Some courts are prioritising urgent interim restraining orders or child maintenance orders. Australia’s family courts have fast-tracked all lockdown-related cases.
Countries need to fund innovations promoting remote judicial services, invest in specialised protection services, work with the private sector and create more channels for accessing justice, such as by collaborating with community-based paralegals and non-lawyer legal assistance initiatives. The time is ripe to address the lack of sensitivity in police and court proceedings as well as rehabilitative support for offenders and survivors. We need to support justice leaders by creating a virtual forum for ministers to share best practice and highlight urgency.
There are many impressive practical initiatives taking steps to lessen the dangers women face at the hands of their abusers. Countries such as Spain and France have created emergency warning systems in supermarkets and pharmacies to offer counselling and help with reporting. Canada is keeping shelters open and earmarking resources in its relief bill, categorising them as essential services. Out of a necessity for more shelters, 20,000 hotel rooms for survivors will be paid for in France. Police in Odisha, India, have implemented a phone-up programme, where officers check up on women who previously filed reports of domestic violence before the lockdown. These innovative approaches need to go beyond the confines of borders, be adapted for local contexts and replicated at scale globally.
The innovation and resilience of grassroots justice groups continues to give me hope in these dark times. They too are on the frontlines, leading rights awareness campaigns, adapting to deliver legal advice remotely and ensuring disadvantaged groups are not overlooked.