‘For some women and children, home is not the safest place’: Responding to family and gender-based violence amid Covid-19

April 13, 2020

As communities around the world grapple with the medical and economic calamities created by Covid-19, a separate but related crisis is unfolding: a significant rise in domestic violence, including gender-based violence and violence against children. 

Experts say new social strains set in motion by the pandemic, namely movement restrictions and lost income, are behind the increase.   

“It’s very stressful to have people in constant contact, cooped up, with nowhere else to go besides home,” says Pact’s Megan Briede, a social worker in South Africa and technical director for a USAID/PEPFAR-funded program that serves vulnerable children. “Men who used to spend a lot of time outside of the home are now there all the time, and families are feeling extra pressure if they’ve lost income. Children who are victims of violence at home learn very quickly to escape the environment to a friend’s house or elsewhere when they see signs that their perpetrator is drunk or agitated. But with this lockdown, there is simply nowhere to move.” 

Risk is also heightened for women and girls facing gender-based violence, says Oksana Bryzhovata, who manages a Pact project in Ukraine that is advancing gender equality and human rights for women and girls. 

“This containment creates real psychological stress and obstacles to escaping dangerous situations,” Bryzhovata explains. “Even for families who didn’t experience domestic violence before the virus, now some are.”

In Ukraine, where citizens have been on order to stay home since mid-March, calls to the national domestic violence hotline have increased by a third, Bryzhovata notes, and communities around the world are seeing similar spikes. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” UN Secretary General António Guterres recently said on Twitter.

For their part, international NGOs must quickly adjust their programs to respond. 

“I think the first step for all of us is simply to recognize that for some women and children, home is not the safest place,” says Shirley Ko, Pact’s deputy health director. “While these lockdowns are very important for public health right now, they leave some individuals extremely vulnerable, so we have to offer support and resources on that individual level. Protecting women and children from violence needs to be part of all of our responses to Covid-19.”

For Pact, Ko says, “We already have trusted relationships with local partners, communities and families that are vulnerable, so we’re drawing on that now.”

In South Africa, Pact’s Government Capacity Building and Support program, or GCBS, has been working since 2013 to help the country’s Department of Social Development to better support orphans and vulnerable children. In addition to spreading awareness generally about staying healthy during Covid-19, after the pandemic began, GCBS immediately prepared messages to be shared through WhatsApp and social media about how families can prevent and respond to violence. 

“We’ve got a strong, existing network of young people through GCBS, so we’re starting there with bulk messaging, and asking people to share,” says Briede. “These are messages of community – we’re telling people that if they’re aware of someone else experiencing violence, they should let them know there is help during this time.”

GCBS hopes to soon begin sharing messaging more widely through the Department of Social Development and radio spots. The project’s 60-plus social workers have been issued detailed guidance for continuing to provide services by phone including regular check-ins with vulnerable families, counseling and referrals. 

Just before South Africa locked down, GCBS distributed booklets to local clinics about how to identify and report child abuse. “During this time especially, we wanted nurses to have this information at their fingertips, as they are the ones mostly likely to come into contact with children right now,” Briede says. 

In nearby Eswatini, Pact implements Insika Ya Kusasa (The Pillars of Tomorrow), a USAID-funded project that is preventing new HIV infections and bolstering opportunity among vulnerable children and adolescent girls and young women. 

“Many of the young women and children we serve were already vulnerable to violence,” says Nicole Miller, Pact’s country director in Eswatini. Because many Swazi men who were working in South Africa before Covid-19 have now returned, Miller notes, households are under added strain. 

Insika Ya Kusasa community volunteers who used to have regular in-person contact with more than 100,000 young women and vulnerable children are now checking in with them by phone, making sure they and their caregivers are aware of increased risks for violence and how to report abuse or attacks and get help. The program is paying special attention to those with open gender-based violence cases and those with histories of violence.

Although Eswatini is essentially locked down, for critical needs, health facilities are still open and social workers and police are still responding. For less urgent cases, trained Insika Ya Kusasa social workers are providing psychosocial support by phone.

“Many people may think that the movement restrictions mean they have nowhere to turn, so they may not report incidents,” Miller says. “We’re making sure they know that’s not the case, especially for situations of extreme danger or rape, where time is of the essence to prevent HIV infections, pregnancies or additional violence.” 

Pact’s Women of Ukraine project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, is working to remove obstacles for women who need assistance. “Although shelters and other services are open, a woman may not be able to make that call for help when her husband is home with her continuously,” Bryzhovata says, “and public transportation is shut down, so she may not have a way to get there.”

Working with Ukraine’s government commissioner for gender equality – already a partner in the project – Pact is carrying out an information campaign to spread awareness about increased domestic violence risk, encouraging authorities to see it as the serious, potentially life-threatening concern that it is, rather than as a secondary issue. 

Women of Ukraine is also redirecting resources so its regional and local partners can launch additional crisis lines to provide psychosocial and legal support and referrals to services such as shelters. Other partners are providing transportation to those in crisis and delivering food and supplies to reduce stress in especially vulnerable households. 

Bryzhovata says that likely won’t be the end of Pact’s efforts to support women amid Covid-19. 

“We understand that the situation and needs are changing daily,” she says. “We are constantly talking to our partners, constantly thinking and planning to improve and bolster our response.”