Domestic Violence, Child Marriage, and Genital Mutilation: Coronavirus Could Be a Catastrophe for Women

A U.N. analysis predicts a "calamitous" increase in violence against women, as well as unwanted pregnancies and child marriages.
April 28, 2020, 2:06pm
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AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

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The coronavirus pandemic will have a “catastrophic impact” on women and girls, accelerating rates of domestic violence and resulting in millions of unwanted pregnancies, female genital mutilations, and child marriages, the U.N. said Tuesday.

The dire warnings are based on an analysis by the United Nations Population Fund — the U.N.’s sexual and reproductive health agency — which predicted the pandemic would have a “calamitous impact” on women’s health.

Among the predictions are an additional 15 million cases of domestic violence around the world for every three months that lockdown restrictions lasted.

“This new data shows the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 could soon have on women and girls globally,” said Natalia Kanem, the agency’s executive director. “The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health.”

The agency said that the pandemic is fueling domestic violence by trapping women and children at home with their abusers, “as households endure stressors like economic turmoil.”

The impact of this was already being seen in the rising volume of assaults, and calls to domestic violence helplines, that have been recorded around the world, from China to the UK, France to Ukraine.

READ: France is putting domestic abuse victims in hotels during coronavirus lockdown

In the U.S., police departments across the country have reported a spike in domestic violence calls during the lockdown. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has received thousands of calls citing COVID-19 as an aspect of their abuse, with abusers cutting off victims' access to hand sanitizer and showers, or lying about coronavirus restrictions to prevent them from leaving the house.

One study found that domestic violence in Brazil increased more than 430 per cent between the months of February and April, according to the U.N.’s Spotlight Initiative, while in the UK, London's Metropolitan Police said calls relating to domestic abuse had risen by about a third during the lockdown.

In Syria, social workers say the lockdowns have fuelled a clear increase in violence; one social worker for a U.N. partner agency said she had witnessed one such assault herself.

“I saw a woman being beaten by her husband during the curfew, as the husband lost his job and the woman was unable to control their nine children,” said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association in Homs.

“One woman told me that she is exposed to intimate violence from her husband, repeated on a daily basis, since he lost his job.”

READ: Coronavirus has given domestic abusers a new arsenal of torture

The agency also predicted that disruption caused by lockdowns will have an enormous impact on domestic violence prevention programs, potentially meaning a third fewer assaults are averted by 2030.

Disruptions caused by the pandemic will also have a disastrous impact on family planning, as well as on efforts to prevent female genital mutilation and child marriage.

The report projected that up to 44 million women in 114 low and middle-income countries would be unable to access contraceptives during lockdown, potentially resulting in millions of unintended pregnancies.

The pandemic was also expected to result in millions of additional cases of child marriage — 13 million over the next decade — due to the disruption to prevention programs, and the increased economic hardship caused by the outbreak. Poverty is a key driver of child marriage, the report explains, because families marry off daughters during times of hardship in the belief they are easing the economic burden on the family.

READ: Abuse could spike as coronavirus traps people indoors

Over the next decade, disruptions to prevention efforts were also projected to result in 2 million girls being genitally mutilated who would otherwise have been spared, said Kanem.

The rise in domestic violence has prompted some governments to include emergency support programs for women in abusive relationships as part of their coronavirus response. In France, the government has put up women in hotels, opened pop-up counselling centers, and created a codeword to secretly report abuse in pharmacies around the country.

In the UK, MPs demanded an urgent government action plan on the issue Monday, including a guarantee of safe housing for anyone needing to flee their home during lockdown because of abuse. Researchers at the Counting Dead Women Project said 14 women and two children had been killed in the first three weeks of lockdown — the deadliest three-week period in the UK for 11 years, and more than double the average rate.

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Cover: Women bang spoons against pots and pans as they hang a banner in Arabic that reads, “lockdown not lockup,” with the number of a domestic violence hotline during a national lockdown aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)