23 Apr Gender Based Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic and economic, social and cultural rights
Boram Jang is a Legal Adviser on Access to Justice for Women at the International Commission of Jurists, Asia & the Pacific Programme, and Khanyo Farisè is a Legal Adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, Africa Programme.
Countries across the globe have made various efforts to suppress transmission of COVID-19 and to mitigate its socio-economic impacts. This unprecedented crisis unfolds in the context of many pre-existing challenges, one of which is the gendered dimensions of access to basic necessities in a world rife with gender inequality. These challenges are now exacerbated by the pandemic and have a disproportionate impact on women’s enjoyment of human rights including economic, social and cultural rights.
Lockdowns have been one of the globally supported measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact on public health. What this means for many women and girls, however, is that they are trapped at home with abusive spouses, partners and family members with limited access to support services, if any.
As recently noted by the UN Secretary General, global lockdowns have resulted in a “horrifying surge” in gender-based violence (GBV). This surge in domestic violence also has a direct impact on women victims because, as the UN Committee on ESCR noted, the pandemic further deepens gender inequalities because “the burden of caring for children at home and sick or older family members falls disproportionately on women”.
Violence against women is a form of discrimination that inhibits ESCR
Domestic violence is a form of gender-based violence against women, which constitutes discrimination against women. GBV serves to perpetuate and entrench the subordinate position of women in political, economic and social spheres. The UN Committee on ESCR recognizes that GBV is a form of discrimination that inhibits the ability to enjoy ESCR, on a basis of equality. States are required to provide victims of domestic violence, who are mostly women, with access to safe housing, healthcare services remedies and redress for physical, mental and emotional harm caused by such abuse.
What are the ESCR implications of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic?
While statistics seem to indicate that more men than women have died of COVID-19, in other respects the COVID-19 pandemic clearly disproportionally impacts women. Studies show that women are often disproportionately employed in lower-paid, and precarious informal employment. Lockdown measures severely limit these women from continuing their work and earning their living. For those women experiencing domestic violence, their increased inability to maintain a level of financial independence leaves them even more vulnerable to abuse – whether physical, emotional, or economic.
Other intersecting vulnerabilities experienced by some women also compound these risks in the context of lockdown. For example, in South Africa there have been reports of rape of women in temporary camps for homeless people erected as part of a COVID-19 response. Victims and survivors of domestic violence who seek to leave an abusive relationship are often faced with housing instability and risks of homelessness due to high housing costs, economic insecurity, damaged credit, and poor tenant histories. In the context of lockdowns, women are even more vulnerable to such situations particularly if there is insufficient access to women’s shelters.
Victims and survivors of domestic violence are also at higher risk of health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, gynecological dysfunction, chronic pain, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These health consequences often continue long after the abuse has ended. They are also at risk of reproductive coercion by which abusers try to control their reproductive health by, as examples, sabotaging birth control or forcing them to terminate a pregnancy.
In this context, it concerning that reproductive health services including abortion services are not lawful or freely available in many countries. Though some countries do allow for lawful abortions, and these may be considered essential services during these lockdowns, even in these contexts the risk of women lacking free, uninhibited and safe access to abortion is under threat. For instance, tried to pass a regressive bill to impose a near-total ban on abortion amid the COVID-19 lockdown in the country, though a final vote has been indefinitely postponed after it was heavily criticized by human rights groups. There have been similar attempts in Tennessee, Alaska and Texas in the United States to ban abortions or declare abortions as non-essential medical procedures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Finally, access to justice for women experiencing domestic violence and other forms of GBV is made even more difficult during lockdowns. Victims and survivors who generally lack community support and face potential secondary victimization when reporting instances of GBV face the additional risk of being accused of violating lockdown restrictions when they come forward to complain. Stretched policing resources focused on policing lockdowns mean GBV cases are even less likely to be prioritized. In many cases the limited functionality of courts will inhibit women’s access to protection orders to guard themselves against further abuse.
State Obligations address domestic violence during the pandemic
It is in this context that the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has called on States to take urgent measures to combat domestic violence in the context of COVID-19 lockdowns. The International Commission of Jurists has urged States to discharge their human right obligations to eliminate GBV, an obligation that is even more urgent during this public health emergency and irrespective of whether States have declared “disasters” or emergencies.
States must give high priority to comprehensive measures to address domestic violence and other forms of GBV. They must allocate sufficient human and financial resources necessary to put in place a national action plan to combat domestic violence in the context of COVID-19.
States must also increase efforts to raise awareness of the criminal nature of domestic violence and the services available to victims. Such measures and services should include physical and mental healthcare services, housing services including shelters, and police and justice services. All cases of GBV must be effectively investigated and perpetrators brought to account despite the pressure placed on policing capacity during lockdowns.
Several States have introduced new ways to respond to the disturbing surges in domestic abuse during lockdowns:
- The French government announced it would put victims of domestic violence in hotel rooms and finance pop-up counselling centers in grocery stores.
- The Spanish government, in addition to also housing victims and their children in hotels, initiated a new campaign encouraging women to call a helpline and has kept open all services to help victims of domestic violence during lockdown.
- The South African government has, in addition to ensuring access to shelters and social services, kept courts open for urgent protection orders. It also has an active texting line through which victims can seek help.
In these unprecedented times, the obligation of States to promote and protect women’s human rights becomes all the more important. As women all over the world are constrained to their homes, States must establish measures so that victims of domestic violence are still able to access redress for violations of their rights.
Crucially, in addition to these immediate measures, States must also undertake long-term measures to invest in women’s ESCR and to provide women with economic independence and security. As examples, States can ensure the provision of paid maternity leave and benefits to ensure women have income security as well as support in childcare. States must also provide improved social security for women and ensure the accessibility of economic opportunities for women. Finally, they must ensure that women have access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.