by Sandra Hochstöger
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the places where we are supposed to be safest – our own homes – pose the biggest threat to the safety of many women and girls. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently stated that lockdowns to suppress the virus trap many women with abusive partners. This is indicated by the fact that in “[…] some countries, the number of women calling support services has doubled.”
Not just tragic fate
In 2013, the World Health Organization defined violence against women a global health problem of epidemic proportions. This was a milestone, since, as Caroline Criado-Perez points out in her book “Do it like a woman …and change the world”, acts of violence against women are often deemed isolated incidents. They are perceived as “[tragic] cases that no one could have foreseen, because they are never counted together as part of a pattern.” Yet, quite the opposite is true. Gender-based violence is systemic, with domestic violence perpetrated by intimate partners globally being the most widespread threat to women and girls. The situation is particularly dire in countries that have institutionalized inequality by political and legal disadvantages of women. Gender-based violence is one of the most serious and pervasive human rights violations. It is the manifested perception that a woman is less worthy and thus subject to a man’s whim.
International organizations such as the OSCE and the OHCHR have recently also called for attention to intimate partner violence in times of isolation at home. The emergency measures to fight COVID-19 have increased the burden regarding domestic work and the care of children, elderly relatives and sick family members – unpaid labour typically taken on by women. At the same time, financial constraints, fear and uncertainty of economic survival trigger perpetrators, aggravating situations at home. Restrictions of movement and limited social contact outside of families expose women even more to physical and psychological abuse with less availability of community support. Fewer shelters and support services are available due to the public lockdown.
Thus, it is crucial to invest in critical infrastructure for women and everyone affected by gender-based and domestic violence. Even in these times of public lockdown, shelters must remain open and available. In the long run, shortcomings in the criminal justice and police response as well as legal and policy gaps need to be tackled in order to reduce the risk of further abuse. Societies cannot think security in the broader sense without addressing the threats to women’s individual safety.
In Austria, help can be sought via the helpline 0800 222 555 or the help chat on www.haltdergewalt.at, operated by the association „Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser“. These services are anonymous and mutlilingual. They also provide assistance to perpetrators, who in the end, need to seek help themselves as well, if we want to overcome domestic violence.