Antonio Guterres. File
With more than 1.277 million cases, including 70,009 deaths, reported in 191 countries and territories around the world since the virus emerged in China in December, COVID-19 poses an unprecedented challenge to humanity.
Lockdowns imposed by authorities across the globe while responding to the pandemic have ignited a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls, according to UN chief António Guterres, and this is certainly a matter of huge concern.
All governments need to make preventing violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.
Calls to helplines have doubled or tripled in some countries amid increasing social and economic strains compounded by strict limits on movement, which have left many women isolated at home with abusive partners.
The combination of economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic, as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing abuse, in almost all countries.
However, even before the global spread of the new coronavirus, UN statistics showed that a third of women around the world experienced some form of violence in their lives.
Incidentally, the issue affects both developed and poorer economies: nearly a quarter of female college students reported having experienced sexual assault or misconduct in the US, whilst in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, partner violence to be a reality for 65 per cent of women.
Research by the World Health Organization (WHO), details disturbing impacts of violence on women’s physical, sexual, reproductive and mental health: women who experience physical or sexual abuse are twice as likely to have an abortion, and the experience nearly doubles their likelihood of falling into depression.
Since the pandemic, the UN is reporting that Lebanon and Malaysia, for example, have seen the number of calls to helplines double, compared with the same month last year; in China they have tripled; and in Australia, search engines such as Google are seeing the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help in the past five years.
In Europe, there have been reports of domestic violence killings in Britain, France, Spain and Italy since lockdowns came into force.
Britain’s national domestic abuse helpline said on Monday it had seen a 25% increase in calls and website hits had more than doubled.
France said last week that reports of domestic abuse to police had soared by 36% in Paris and 32% elsewhere after its restrictions came into force.
It is good that France has announced it will pay for hotel rooms for abuse victims, open pop-up counselling centres in or near supermarkets and provide an extra one million euros ($1.1 million) to anti-domestic abuse organisations.
Responding to the rise in violence is also complicated by the fact the institutions are already under a huge strain from the demands of dealing with the pandemic.
The UN chief is right in urging all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.
It would be wise to heed UN domestic violence reduction recommendations, which include: Increase investment in online services and civil society organisations; Make sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers; Set up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries; Declare shelters as essential services; Create safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers; Avoid releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form.
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