When Covid19 Treats Women Differently

Secretary-General of the United Nations recently stated that “Violence is not just on the battlefield. For many women and girls, it is in the places where they should be the safest – their homes.”

While it was estimated by the international community that one in three women experienced physical and sexual violence in their lifetime, and two in three women became victims of intimate partner violence (UN Women), the global pandemic Covid19 has elevated this situation for women, who endure the burden of added household chores, and sustain extreme kinds of violence behind closed doors.

Covid19 has impacted beyond the borders of all countries irrespective of socioeconomic status or cultures, questioning the capability of the governance mechanisms in providing safety and security. The wide geographical spread of the pandemic, despite its common effects on the global society as a whole, has certainly not impacted everyone the same. While different societies faced severe challenges at various levels in accessing health services and food, the pandemic has created a disproportionately large risk to women’s health, security, freedom, and most importantly their dignity.

Although the ‘lockdown’, was a common protective measure by governments to mitigate community spreading, this unexpected environment created a psychological impact, irrespective of the age and gender. The severe economic downturn caused by the pandemic was exacerbating the challenges that the vulnerable communities face, heightening women’s risk of becoming victims of violence and leading to spikes in sexual physical, and domestic violence, and exploitation, and discrimination. Furthermore, women experienced poverty, high rates of job losses, reduced financial independence, extra domestic burden, constraints with access to sexual and reproductive health facilities, high rates of teen pregnancies, and limited access to potential Covid19 health services.

Sri Lanka not being an exception, saw the rise of violence against women increasing with the imposition of a police curfew that lasted almost four months. While the island-wide curfew resulted positively in preventing the spread of the virus, it was detrimental to women in countless shapes, affecting their physical, psychological, economic, and social well-being, as their responsibilities and level of access to resources began changing drastically.

Ramani, a young mother of two has been facing domestic violence for the past two years since her husband became unemployed. Ramani mentioned that her husband has to borrow loans from a bank to begin his own business after losing his job in the garment industry. As he had constraints repaying his loan due to the closure of his business, he began reproaching Ramani under the influence of alcohol, which eventually led to hurting her physically.

“He attacked me because I would not give him money for his alcohol. He squeezed my neck in front of my young children. I screamed and then lost conscience for some minutes. That’s when he left me alone

Ramani stated that her situation became severe during the pandemic under the curfew, when she was routinely abused in all forms, with no escape out. “Now he is into the habit of attacking me even when I am not able to prepare a meal due to the insufficiency in rations.”

Manel who is a middle-aged woman from the outskirts of the capital city has suffered an escalated form of violence under Covid19. While before she escaped to her relatives’ homes for refuge, the police curfew forced her to withstand her husband’s harshness and physical violence on her.

“I am not comfortable sharing my experience openly, yet the scars on my body would explain it all” cried Manel. “I wake up every morning hoping for this nightmare to end that day, but it never does. I am afraid to seek help from the Police as it will worsen my plight if he eavesdrops on my phone call.”

Ramani and Manel are among hundreds of other victims of violence against women in Sri Lanka, who faced intensified threats and violence under Covid19.

While it is estimated that one in four of Sri Lankan women become victims of domestic violence, these numbers have surged during times of conflicts and crisis. But as these incidents are largely unreported, it leads to challenges in responding to them effectively, with the risk factors remaining the same for these women.

Sexual and Gender-based violence and domestic violence are not always expressed openly by the victims due to shame and fear. The victims consider it to be a taboo, hidden from sight and unspoken. Victims also fear losing their social status and becoming repeatedly victimized at home and outside.

Conserved by social norms, SGBV happens for the most part in the shadows and remains behind closed doors. This increases the use of violence and exploitation on women, who are deliberately contemplated as the property of the family, accelerating the means for further victimization. While some survivors are in a position to seek help, many fail, due to lack of courage, restricted mobility, insufficient finances, lack of support services, and fear. This common situation even worsens during a time of pandemic when being trapped at home with the abusers.

Twenty-eight-year-old, Neeta who had married and moved into her husband’s home a few months before the pandemic had been encountering physical and sexual abuse from her parents-in-law during the lockdown. “I was devastated when my husband accused me and assaulted me. I expected him to be by my side. He threatened to divorce me. My attempt to contact my family and friends failed when he found out, and kicked me hard and burnt my hand with a cigarette. The only choice I had was to remain silent. I was ashamed of myself.”

To support women who were confined to their homes during the pandemic under the strict curfew system, the National Committee on Women which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs of Sri Lanka, launched a 24-hour toll-free Help Desk to receive complaints from women who were victims of violence. According to this Committee, the complaints received saw a rise, with complaints lodged against domestic violence increased by 27 percent from March to April within a month since the lockdown. Besides this, there were the reported cases of sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, external family disputes which led to violence against women that witnessed an escalation throughout the pandemic.

Although data are scarce, there is evidence to state that a drastic acceleration in the rate of violence against women in line with the Covid-19 outbreak, is visible on the island and that there are several more unreported cases of violence which have not come to light. Yet the official statistics barely captures the full extent of the problem women have been facing due to the pandemic. As the fundamental focus is given to only physical and psychological violence and victimization which are the ‘typical’ features of sexual gender-based violence, there is hardly importance rendered towards other encumbering features of violence that Covid19 bestowed on women.

Despite the need for gender equality in employment, the pandemic has hit women harder than men, in terms of unemployment. Most women lost their jobs under the pretext of having to care for the family during the pandemic. Lack of transport facilities and high chances of contracting the virus were sketched as excuses for employers to terminate women from their jobs. Having no access to earnings compounded their economic instability, restricting financial independence, limiting their decision-making power in the family, violating their freedom, and increasing violence against them. While being unemployed is tough, some women had to encounter unplanned pregnancies due to the effects of intimate partner violence.

Even though women are facing complex challenges, with impacts being distinct from each other as they are situated differently, still the violations and consequences are largely interrelated. In every domain – security, health, economy, the impacts of Covid19 are intensified for women simply by virtue of their sex.

SGBV and Domestic violence on women were altogether a global pandemic long before the novel Covid19, states the United Nations. Yet sadly, the pandemic has inflicted devastating implications for women’s access to freedom, equality, and justice.

As this year 2020, commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), gender equality seems to have taken a step backward with the Covid19 pandemic, accelerating the numbers of domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence for many women, and heightening their inequalities in both the social and economic spheres.

Though Sri Lanka was struck by Covid19 in early February 2020, it was one of the countries that rapidly responded to the pandemic and controlled community spread. While the country’s health authorities succeeded in managing the virus spread and recovery positively compared to its South Asian neighbors, it was not able to control the sexual and gender-based violence and domestic violence within homes, and respond effectively.

Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Domestic violence in Sri Lanka have always remained within the domestic realm. Hence, it has been a struggle to expose the violence as the exposure of the victim tags along with it. This created a loophole for the perpetrator or abuser, resulting in an increase of this human rights violation.

Access to immediate means of justice for women during a crisis or pandemic is fundamental, and cannot be ignored. It reflects on the laws and policies in place for the security and protection of women, and on the other hand, is associated with the representation of women in governance and leadership. The Government is responsible to increase women’s participation in governance, and bring them to the decision-making table. The lack of women in leadership positions leads to forming policies that increase gender inequalities and inequities. Women’s voices must be regarded as important in the development agenda of the country as well as in sustaining peace and security for women.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Convention Eliminating all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which sets an obligation for the government to respond actively to SGBV, DV, and VAW.

This global pandemic creates new challenges for the government and the judiciary in applying a gendered lens in formulating policies and legal systems accessible to all women equally.

Evelyn Ariyaratnam