Imagine that your comfort zone, your safest place on earth, your safe haven where you take out all your anxieties, worries and fears, the warmest place for you… imagine that this turns into a source of toxicity, danger and insecurity. Imagine that you are trapped in it with no other place to go to.
Many women around the world are living this reality during crises and pandemics that are associated with high rates of domestic violence.
The rates of domestic violence increased in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In Japan, sexual and physical violence against women occurred during the 1997 and 2010 earthquakes. After Hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, the rate of rape among women who moved to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer parks was 53.6 times higher than the highest base rate for the state of Mississippi in 2004.
In Uganda, the rates of domestic violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) have increased during prolonged droughts.
Due to the spread of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone some years ago, the rates of child marriage increased during school closures. An unprecedented increase of 75 per cent in maternal deaths occurred due to complications of pregnancy and delivery within 18 months of the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The UN children’s fund UNICEF reported that many adolescent females had left school and married during the period of the health emergency and more than 14,300 girls had become pregnant and mostly could not return to school.
As we face the threat of the global Covid-19 pandemic today and the importance of staying at home to limit its spread, mental disorders are occurring worldwide due to home quarantine accompanied by feelings of disappointment and boredom and causing a state of tension and anger.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for the enhanced protection of women and girls from domestic violence under the economic and social pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has urged all governments to “make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans to Covid-19.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a report showing increasing rates of violence against women during disasters. The increase in violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic may be due to measures of social distancing and staying at home, fears and worries at losing jobs, a lack of money and rare contacts with family and friends who can offer support and protection from violence.
The physical stress resulting from bearing the heavier burdens of looking after the family, particularly after school closures, as well as the psychological stress due to the fear of family members getting infected, have added further pressures on women.
In April, a global report issued by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), in association with Johns Hopkins University in the US, Victoria University in Australia and Avenir Health estimated that there could be 15 million additional cases of domestic violence in 2020 if the average period of lockdown reached three months, 31 million cases if the lockdown reached six months, 45 million cases if the lockdown reached nine months and 61 million cases if the lockdown reached one year.
The report also warned that 47 million women in 114 low and middle-income countries could lose access to contraceptives, possibly resulting in more than seven million unwanted pregnancies.
The report suggested that Covid-19 could seriously undermine the progress being made towards achieving a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including ending the unmet need for family planning and ending violence against women.
The report estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic could slow down progress towards ending FGM by 33 per cent, with an around two-year delay through 2020-2021. It expected that the total impact of the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to 13 million additional child marriages, as well as to negative impacts on ending preventable maternal deaths and lower resources to offer support, counselling and care for violence survivors.
Those facts have led countries worldwide to take measures to protect women from domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Egypt, the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), a NGO, in collaboration with the National Council for Women (NCW) and UN Women conducted a survey on women and Covid-19 in Egypt from 4 to 14 April.
The survey revealed that 11 per cent of married women in Egypt had been subject to spousal violence during the week before the survey and after the Covid-19 outbreak. It indicated that less-educated women were the most exposed to violence, given that the proportion declined from 14 per cent among women of below-intermediate education to four per cent among women of university education or above.
Exposure to violence also declined with a higher economic level, given that the proportion declined from 14 per cent among the lowest economic level to six per cent among the highest. There were no clear discrepancies between different areas. Women aged 30 to under 50 were the most vulnerable to spousal violence compared to other age brackets (12 per cent and nine per cent among younger and older women, respectively).
Among the victims of violence, seven per cent had never been subject to spousal violence prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, while four per cent had been subject to spousal violence. It is striking that the proportion of those who were exposed to spousal violence in the week before the survey and had never been exposed to spousal violence before was four per cent for women aged 19 to 29 and rose to eight per cent for women aged 50 and above. The survey said that family problems had increased by 33 per cent and violence among family members by 19 per cent.
The National Council for Women Complaints Office, mandated to handle women’s complaints, has also been monitoring different forms of violence against women. The Office received 9,887 complaints through its hotline 15115 and via its branches all over Egypt from 1 March to 20 April, including 370 complaints of violence. The complaints included 241 requests for debt repayment, the postponement of loans received by women and threats to take legal procedures against them in case of failure to pay installments.
The office took the necessary actions to help the complainants in collaboration with the concerned bodies. A decision was issued to postpone the payment of loan installments. The provision of financial assistance to women was discussed in coordination with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the Ministry of Trade and Industry and NGOs.
A total of 129 complaints at physical, verbal or social violence was received, including complaints from women who had been exposed to assault or verbal abuse by husbands or fathers. Such incidents may often include fathers threatening to kidnap children. Preliminary actions were taken to offer legal and psychosocial support to women victims of this type of violence.
The NCW Complaints Office received 8,587 requests to meet economic and social needs nationwide, including requests for financial assistance. Groups of irregular workers were assisted to register their data on the website of the Ministry of Manpower.
The Egyptian policy paper “The Rapid Response to Women’s Situation during the Covid-19 Outbreak” was the first of its kind published by any government in the world. This was done through the NCW on 30 March, and it suggested response measures on both the immediate and medium terms and post the Covid-19 response under four main pillars, among them Women, Voice and Agency that focuses on violence against women and leadership and decision-making during crises.
The pillar looks at how women’s participation in decision-making processes can enhance health security control mechanisms and ensure women’s access to relevant information. It also considers how response measures can provide psychosocial, legal and advisory support for women who may be subject to violence during this time.
PROTECTION AND REPORTING
The National Council for Women also established the Women Policy Tracker on Responsive Policies and Programmes during the Covid-19 Pandemic and documented 52 measures taken by the government in response to women’s needs during the outbreak. Work on this is in progress.
Egypt has also applied many protection and reporting mechanisms, including the hotline of the NCW Complaints Office, which has been extended to receive more complaints and offer legal and psychosocial support. The hotline receives complaints for 12 hours a week, and these are addressed by legal experts, social workers and psychologists. There is also a child helpline, 16000, operated by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, the Human Rights Sector of the Ministry of the Interior, the cabinet complaints line, 16528, the complaints line of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, 16528 and the hotline of the General Secretariat of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment at 0800880700.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity has also intensified its precautionary measures and published more awareness-raising materials in women’s shelters.
A service package has been launched for women and girls subject to violence. It includes medical protocols, case-referral pathways, a standards handbook for judicial proceedings, a manual on procedures, a handbook on effective police responses, a manual for the Women’s Complaints Office, a procedural manual for establishing anti-violence units in Egyptian universities, a trainers’ guide for medical service providers and a guide on the provision of social services and processes in survivor shelters. These have been provided in partnership with the NCW, the national concerned bodies and the United Nations.
Egypt is also committed to protecting women from all forms of violence in its 2014 Constitution. The penal code identifies the crimes of physical and moral violence, and it criminalises verbal abuse, harassment, sexual harassment and any acts that target defamation or humiliation including when using the media. All acts of assault from beating, to FGM, to indecent assault and rape are criminalised.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, cases of domestic violence have increased in many countries, including China, Spain, the UK, Belgium, Turkey, France, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Singapore, Argentine, Chile, Brazil, India and Uganda.
Countries that have taken measures regarding the protection of women from violence under present circumstances include Spain and France. Both have developed violence reporting mechanisms using special codes to be given to women in pharmacies. France has also established a number of instant counselling centres in shopping malls. Canada, Australia and Finland have allocated budgets to identify the mechanisms behind such violence.
We should not underestimate violence against women, and precautionary measures should be taken in parallel with measures to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Violence against women is a crime, whether or not during pandemics. It is a betrayal of our humanity, and we have to end it to protect women once and for all.
The writer is president of the National Council for Women.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly