Tanzina Vega: Activist around the world rallied last Wednesday as part of the international day for elimination of violence against women. The day was meant to call attention to the so-called shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls that emerged as countries were forced to lock down because of COVID-19 trapping many at home with their abusers.
According to the United Nations, domestic violence has intensified in the months since the pandemic first began. In some places calls to help lines have increased fivefold, in others shelters are at capacity. Before COVID-19 global domestic violence had already reached epidemic proportions. Last year alone, 243 million women and girls worldwide were subjected to physical or sexual violence.
Today, we look at what international governments are doing to address the rise in domestic violence during the pandemic and how that's playing out here at home. I'm Tanzina Vega and that's where we start today on The Takeaway. I'm joined now by Anita Bhatia, the Deputy Executive Director at UN Women. Anita, thanks for joining us.
Anita: It's a pleasure Tanzina, hello there.
Tanzina: How do we define the spectrum of abuse in terms of domestic or intimate partner violence?
Anita: It ranges from what you can easily imagine, which is physical violence and the attacking of a woman's body by intimate partner. To more subtle forms of violence, including psychological violence. Of course, women are also preyed upon by unknown predators, through cyber violence.
Tanzina: Who is most at risk right now? Are we talking mostly about women and girls? Are we talking about LGBTQ people or people from other marginalized communities?
Anita: I think there are risks in all communities, but I really do want to underscore the risks right now to women and girls. Because the conditions that we are facing with renewed lockdowns are the very conditions that actually help perpetrators of violence. That's why the secretary general of the UN called for a ceasefire at home, because home is the place where women are the least safe.
Tanzina: Tell us about some of the examples that you're seeing of how this pandemic has made domestic violence worse for women. Because of either full lockdown, shelter-in-place orders or even just the idea that we can't be in community with others. Here in the United States, we're not in a full lockdown, but we're definitely more separated from others than we would normally be.
Anita: You're absolutely right. What happened at the beginning of the pandemic was that the shelter helplines across the world, not just in the US, phones were ringing off the hook because the numbers of violence were going up so starkly everywhere. UN-Women was collecting data, because we have pretty deep connections to women's rights groups on the ground in pretty much every country in the world. What we were hearing was really staggering.
I think the shape that this violence has taken over the last nine months has been to bring out into the open something that had already existed and we knew that it was there. It just became so much more visible in some ways during the pandemic, because of the crisis situation that so many shelters and helplines found themselves in.
Tanzina: I'm wondering if we can even talk a little bit about what some of these environments are like that are leading to this. Is part of it because these are relationships that are already marked by domestic violence and being kept away from friends and families and isolated only exacerbates that. Is it also Anita, the fact that many folks are being forced to not just work from home, but take care of their children from home and create a pressure cooker of an environment, if you will, that many people are in. Is it all of the above that's leading to these increased cases of domestic violence?
Anita: I think the phrase that you used pressure cooker is right, because of course, some of these cases were cases where abuse was a feature of family life, even before the pandemic. The stress of being in lockdown and the perfect conditions for abuse that the pandemic created. Think about it being forced not to leave the home, having no access to community, having no access to family for a perpetrator, this is a perfect set of conditions. Some of it, of course was the repeat of what would have been a historic pattern in that family setting. Some of it is new brought on by the stresses of not having work, and by the pressure cooker effect of just having to be at home all the time.
Tanzina: Are there particular countries or regions where we're hearing more reports of domestic violence during the pandemic? Anita.
Anita: I wish I could tell you that there were some countries where this wasn't happening, but our data actually shows that this has been a pretty universal trend. One of the things that the pandemic has done, is that it has enabled the people to talk about this in a way that just wasn't possible before the pandemic. In fact, it has forced governments to talk about this in a way that hadn't been done before, because it became such a big issue.
We've had countries like France, where the government had to come out and rent 20,000 hotel rooms to give shelter to victims of violence who had to escape home. We've had countries where the government had to come up with secret codes that women could go and use, for example, at a local pharmacy to signal that they needed help. Governments have had to come out and speak about this.
Whereas previously a lot of issues on violence against women were treated as just family issues that had to be sorted out at the family level, or perhaps at the community level, but not a matter of government public policy. What the pandemic has done, is that it has made this an issue of government public policy. That's why the secretary general of the UN asked for a number of countries to join with him in calling for a ceasefire at home and in recognizing this as a shadow pandemic.
Tanzina: I have flip side question for you, I'm wondering as we're seeing the rise of authoritarian governments in certain parts of the world. Some might even argue here in the United States under Donald Trump, but even in Brazil, with Jair Bolsonaro and others. Is there any connection Anita, between the rise of authoritarian governments led particularly by men, to these increasing in cases of domestic violence. Do we know if there's a connection there?
Anita: What I would say is that governments which have authoritarian leaders, and countries which have authoritarian governments are definitely seeing a violation of human rights more broadly. Human rights defenders are finding it increasingly hard to make themselves heard without being subjected to some form of persecution.
There is definitely a link and we know that for certain marginalized communities, you had talked about LGBTQ initially, that life is definitely harder. Now, when it comes to the data on violence against women, we see that even in countries which don't have authoritarian government. The sad thing about the issue of violence against women is actually its universality.
Tanzina: What else can governments do at this point? Are they having to step in. Because here, for example, in the United States, the legal system is so backed up because of the Coronavirus, because there are caseloads. Even though domestic violence is prioritized, there's still a lag. Are governments having to step in because just the judicial systems in these countries and so many countries are backed up as they are here in the United States?
Anita: I think the judicial system in any case is not going to be the place of first resort for a woman who's being beaten. You're absolutely right, that governments have had to step in and there are many different ways in which they can do it. For example, certain provinces in Canada declared even at the height of the pandemic, when most things were closed, that shelters were essential services and had to remain open.
That's the simple thing that all governments can do as we enter the next phase of lockdown. Is to make sure that shelters are declared essential services and are kept open, that's number one. A second thing of course that governments can do, is to make sure that funding continues to go to community shelters and to hotlines that women can call for help. I would say there's also a role for business and for individuals to make sure that these services remain open, no matter what's going on in terms of the lockdown.
Tanzina: The holidays are upon us. They are very different this year, many people are having them largely in small groups, if at all, and many people are having them in isolation. We know that holidays can also be a difficult time, and there are often an increase in domestic violence cases around holidays. Anita, for people who are listening who find themselves in an abusive situation, or know people who are, or could be. What should they do, given what we've been talking about, particularly now that we're combining a difficult holiday season with a global pandemic?
Anita: For women who find themselves in these awful situations, the first thing I would say is, please have the courage to seek help. Help is available, and it must be sought. For governments, for city governments, for municipalities, I would say please make sure that your police forces are sensitized and know that this is an important issue, which has to be paid attention to. Because very often, women will call and police hotlines or emergency lines will simply not pay enough attention to the phone call.
We need to make sure that the police are a force for good and are sensitized through training and through awareness building, that this is a really important issue. If you're an individual, just think about what signs you might be seeing of unusual behavior that might lead you to pause and think, "Is there something going on here where I can be helpful?"
Tanzina: Are there specific things people should look for?
Anita: I think anything which looks like an unusual pattern, which of course, is difficult to detect right now, because so many things are unusual, but anything that looks off the charts. Of course, if you know somebody where there is a history of violence, be extra vigilant, make sure you're making time for that extra check-in, make sure that they're okay.
Very often victims of violence will try to justify because of psychological oppression their current situation. They will often downplay the risks that they and their children may be facing. I would say if you have somebody in your family or your community who is like that, make sure that you are reaching out to them and making sure that they are okay.
Tanzina: Anita Bhatia is the Deputy Executive Director at UN Women. Anita, thanks so much for joining us.
Anita: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Tanzina.
Tanzina: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799 safe. That's 1-800-799-7233 for support in English and Spanish.
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