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How to stop Coronavirus Lockdown Leading to an Upsurge in Violence Against Women

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Mwanahamisi Singano

Guest post from Mwanahamisi Singano, a feminist activist Member of FEMNET

The world is witnessing an unprecedent health pandemic. With more than 440,318 confirmed cases of COVID19 across the world, and almost 20,000 deaths (at the time of publication), the world is shutting down. Everyone is being asked to stay home and be safe, but one thing that everyone has forgotten is that homes are not safe for women.

The 2017 report of United Nation office on Drugs and Crime finds that almost 6 out of 10 women intentionally killed are murdered by an intimate partner or family member. Oceania leads with 75% followed by Africa 68%, then Asia 59%, America 44% and Europe 43%. 137 women are killed every day by the people they know. A WHO report of 2013, on violence against women concluded that almost 1 in 3 women globally have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetime.

The State of African Women Report 2018 paints an even more gloomy picture: “One study from Zambia indicated that, among female sexual assault survivors, 49% were younger than 14 and 85% younger than 19. Violence makes an early appearance in women’s intimate and sexual relationships. A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicates that over 50% of ever-married girls have experienced IPV, with the highest rates in Equatorial Guinea, DRC, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Cameroon”.

The report went further, capturing the intersectional oppression experienced by people with disability, older women, sexual minorities etc. in both public and private spaces.

Why I am bringing this up in the middle of coronavirus pandemic? Well, because for so long we have been fighting and calling on governments and communities to make ‘homes’ safer for women, children, people with disabilities and minorities. Too often, decision-makers and perpetrators told us, ‘those are private matter, which should be dealt with privately’. So it is supremely ironic now, to see that a global health pandemic is being managed by asking the public to isolate themselves in precisely those ‘private spaces’.

In doing so, governments are making huge assumptions that homes are safe. I have to disappoint them: homes are not safe for women; we know the facts.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we abandon social distancing (how I hate that name! I wish we could call it “physical distancing”). Coming from Africa where social capital is all you have to manage a crisis like this, I do feel that as countries go into lockdown, we all need more humanity, more emotional connection, support, more hope and inspiration. And technology today allows us to offer ‘social support’ and stay socially connected with less physical contact. “Physical distancing’ should also address physical violence, which women and girls have been experiencing in their private spaces.

Importantly, we urgently need to clearly communicate and make resources available to report, control and manage gender-based violence. Otherwise, with everyone locked down, gender-based violence could rise to unprecedented levels. Women, children, people with disability and minority groups need to know that lock down does not mean that they should tolerate violence, that they should not report abuse or that they should keep on living with their abusers. We need to urgently provide needed support to millions of people who might now be experiencing harassment, abuse and violence in their home as they manage the spread of the virus.

Neither, for all of us in Africa, should lockdown become an excuse to subject women to an unbearable burden of unpaid care work. If anything, coronavirus should be an opportunity for both men and women, boys and girls to share household work and nurture a more equal society.

However, this we will not happen automatically: resources and messaging need to be clear. For example, the ongoing media campaign educating the global community about the virus needs to strongly and categorically promote a fairer sharing of care work and safer homes, free of gender-based violence.

Governments across the world need to establish and/or inform communities on reporting processes, hotline numbers and support systems available to deal with a wide range of violence. It is dangerous and wrong to treat ‘lock down’ or ‘stay home’ as gender neutral. We know that our homes are gendered, they are the core of the ‘unequal gender relations’ and they are not safe.

Editor’s note: for updated statistics on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, please see Worldometer’s statistics.