Opinion: Coronavirus is driving a domestic violence pandemic

An event on combating conflict-related sexual violence and sexual and gender-based violence in Central Darfur state, Sudan. Photo by: Hamid Abdulsalam / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, reports of domestic violence are increasing around the world. With one in three women globally experiencing violence over their lifetimes, the world was already facing a crisis. Now, COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem.

The rampant spread of the virus has forced victims to stay at home with their abusers, leaving them with few opportunities to seek shelter or solace. Victims in the world’s poorest countries, especially those with already-existing humanitarian crises, are the most vulnerable. International development organizations must ramp up their efforts to prevent and address domestic violence in order to stop a pandemic of violence from emerging.

International development and humanitarian aid touch the lives of millions of people on a daily basis, with many of these beneficiaries being women. According to Public Radio International, the U.S. government funds over $1 billion each year to gender equality activities. The world’s largest development organizations all implement gender programming, and many carry out domestic violence awareness and prevention projects, such as Oxfam’s “Enough” campaign. Equipped with financial resources, these organizations can shift their focus to mitigating violence among their beneficiaries and put a stop to the rapidly rising rate of domestic violence.

Can gender-based violence services find a foothold in humanitarian settings?

After decades of work to combat the global epidemic, longtime GBV experts have yet to see an increase in rhetoric translate into consistent commitment on the ground.

As the world battles COVID-19, the pandemic’s consequences are intensified among women as compared to men. The United Nations Population Fund released a report stating that pandemics increase the risk for gender-based violence; during the Ebola outbreak, women, and children experienced higher rates of sexual violence.

These risks are even worse for poor, vulnerable populations.

The same UNFPA report articulated the capacity gaps in countries with high levels of poverty and conflict. In the low- and middle-income countries, the danger of COVID-19 will only compound existing cases of domestic violence and increase the danger of lethality. International organizations working to provide health care and humanitarian assistance to communities should simultaneously address domestic violence to protect vulnerable victims.

If international development organizations address domestic violence head-on during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, they will experience positive, long-term effects in their gender programming. Research shows that the relationship between domestic violence and women’s empowerment programs is mixed, with evidence showing empowerment programs both increasing and decreasing women’s risk of experiencing violence.

When women receive more education and contribute financially to the household, this increase in status may make them less vulnerable to domestic violence. On the other hand, if women live in areas with negative gender norms, their empowerment may actually threaten their partners’ household status and increase the risk of domestic violence.

With the potential risks in mind, development organizations should err on the side of caution and create specific interventions targeting domestic violence. When working with women, organizations must be aware of the potential danger these individuals will face as a result of their participation in activities.

Most domestic violence advocates develop safety plans with their clients to help them prepare for any scenario that might come their way. Staff at development organizations can help victims facing violence with basic safety planning: they can discuss how to minimize risk while living with an abusive partner, plan how to leave if violence in the home escalates, and, if appropriate, refer victims to local law enforcement.

At the very least, staff can be a source of emotional support to survivors of violence rather than leaving them to experience violence alone. Using safeguarding techniques leads to more ethical development work and effective gender programming. Only when women are safe from violence can they then experience true empowerment.

There may be hesitation to funnel resources into domestic violence interventions while this pandemic continues. However, international development organizations must recognize that both COVID-19 and domestic violence are imminent public health issues linked closely together.

Victims of violence are at great risk during this time of heightened stress and fear. In countries that already lack robust social and legal services for domestic violence victims, development organizations may be one among only a few potential sources of resources and safety.

If international organizations currently lack the capacity to directly address violence on their own, they can support local domestic violence intervention programs financially. As they build up capacity, organizations can also bolster existing government resources.

Recently, UN Women issued a brief and a series of recommendations for all sectors of society on COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls — these recommendations are a perfect starting point for international organizations.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on governments to address the global rise in domestic violence incidents. International development organizations must partner with governments and other civil society actors and respond to that call. As domestic violence cases continue to rise around the world, we must act now to support those suffering from these parallel pandemics.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Theresa Puhr

    Theresa Puhr is a graduating student at the University of Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs. As a master's student, she worked with Oxfam on its Women's Economic Empowerment programs in Southeast Asia. Previously, she served as an advocate at a domestic violence and sexual assault service center. Her work and research interests focus on public policy, China, and gender issues.