The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 infections have affected countries all across the globe including countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Data collated from various sources now shows that almost 90 countries have now imposed compulsory or recommended confinement, curfews and quarantines to flatten the curve. Due to these various measures, half of the world’s population is now confined within their own home to prevent the further spread of the virus. The UNDP estimates that income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries. With an estimated 55 percent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reflect across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition affecting those who are the most marginalised and vulnerable in the region. The combination of economic and health uncertainties amid the lockdown have led to the rise of other issues namely, violence against women and girls (VAWG). UN Women estimates that the global cost of VAWG, which had previously been estimated at approximately USD 1.5 trillion, will add to the economic impact of COVID-19.
Past research has shown that a crisis of this kind, whether caused by a disease outbreak or a natural disaster, have led to an increased rate of domestic violence (DV), intimate partner violence (IPV), and violence against children (VAC) affecting women and girls in these situations. When such violence includes sexual violence and reproductive control, it seriously compromises women’s sexual and reproductive health and autonomy and can lead to increase in instances of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. When the COVID-19 spread across parts of China in late 2019, the local police authorities reported cases of IPV that were three times higher than what was received in early 2019. For countries which already have a high rate of DV/IPV/VAC, being on lockdown due to the virus means that a large percentage of women and girls are now living in constant threat within their own homes. Malaysia has reported a sharp increase in the number of DV cases following the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was imposed since March 18th, based on data gathered from the Women and Family Development Ministry and NGOs. The ministry’s hotline reported a 57 percent increase in calls from women in distress up to March 26th. Similarly, in Singapore, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) women’s helpline saw a 33 percent increase in calls related to family violence in February 2020 which sharply contrasts with figures from previous years. The Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice Legal Aid Institute (LBH APIK) has also seen an increase in its caseload with a three-fold increase in referral cases reported from the National Commission on Violence Against Women since the work-from-home order. Study findings showing the correlation between a crisis situation and rise in VAWG have revealed that perpetrators of violence use the period of crisis to their advantage to exert a sense of power and control in their lives. In a lockdown situation, perpetrators use such measures to control the whereabouts and day to day actions of their target. This also means that when faced with violence, women and girls under lockdown are unable to leave their homes to call for help. Financial dependence on their partners or male family members prevents some women from leaving such unsafe environments. Apart from being cut off from support systems such as legal support, victims of violence in a lockdown situation are unable to access urgent health responses including emergency services, sexual and reproductive health services, psychological assessments and long-term support to address the physical and mental health implications of surviving violence.
In these circumstances, it has become more than necessary for governments to adopt a gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) lens in their crisis response. This will require the government to take additional measures to supplement the mechanisms that are already in place to prevent VAWG. Women’s rights activists from this region are therefore urging governments to increase funding to support helplines, crisis shelters, one stop centres/multi-purpose centres and long-term economic resilience packages for those affected as well as strengthen capacity and number of health service providers and law enforcement officials who oversee rescues and provisional protection orders related to VAWG. Hotlines should be made available 24/7 and its capacity ought to be increased to deal with the surge of cases being reported through these lines. In this respect, it is important to learn the best practices adopted in other countries to address this issue. Australia for example, have already announced a A$150 million increase in funding on March 19th to tackle the rising DV cases in their country by using the money to support the telephone helpline services. This is also a time when civil society, academics, NGOs and and the government should work more closely than ever before to address the issue by collectively scaling up their support services and by raising widespread awareness against VAWG using online social media platforms, telecommunications and media portals. Adoption of innovative approaches is also what countries in this region need to invest in to tackle VAWG. In Colombia, the government has issued a decree to guarantee continued access to services virtually, including legal advice, psychosocial advice, police and justice services including hearings. To reach women with disabilities and those with no access to phones or internet, Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), grassroots, legal aid service providers, women’s rights organisations and communities need to be supported strongly to strengthen their current frontline role in the crisis. It is this integrated and collaborative approach that will help us learn, adapt and respond to the ‘shadow pandemic’ of rising rates of VAWG worldwide, including in the Asia-Pacific region.
by Naz Chowdhury