Cape Town - The Covid-19 pandemic is having far reaching and devasting human, social and economic effects across the globe. Many countries have imposed lockdown measures, confining people to their homes to curb the spread of the virus and reduce the loss of lives. Potentially, creating
the perfect storm for the surge of another pandemic – violence against women and children.
In his forward to the National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide the president writes: “South Africa holds the shameful distinction of being one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman” and he concludes by noting that “We will spare no effort until this country’s women and children are safe, can live, work and play in freedom, and their rights upheld”. Those rights must be protected even in times of crisis.
Violence against women and violence against children are deeply linked – they co-occur in the same households and share the same drivers. We would expect the deepening levels of poverty, food insecurity and joblessness caused by the lockdown to contribute to an escalation in levels of stress and conflict in households. This toxic mix of stressors heightens the risk of violence in the home, both between intimate partners and by caregivers against children. So, in a country well known for its excessive levels of violence – we must ask ourselves what is happening to women and children under lockdown?
At the end of the first week of lockdown the Minister of Police announced that complaints of gender-based violence jumped up 37%. However, April saw dramatic decreases on the previous year: domestic violence fell by 70%, rape by 87%. Services that remained open during level 5 such as Rape Crisis and Thuthuzela Care Centres also experienced decreases in cases. Whilst, the GBV Command Centre reported a staggering increase in calls, most of these were for assistance with poverty relief not reports of violence. Childline Gauteng received four times as many calls as usual, most were for advice on health and poverty related matters, but calls complaining of violence and abuse increased by 60%. The emerging picture of levels of violence against women and children in the home is rather hazy – but data from helplines and police is only one part of the puzzle. Is the low incidence of gender-based violence real? Or are serious cases not getting reported?
The social isolation imposed by the lockdown– results in women and children being trapped in very dangerous households. Social isolation equals lack of support from family and friends who are often the first line of support when women are in danger in their homes. Similarly, child abuse is less likely to be detected as children have less contact with trusted adults including teachers to detect signs of abuse and monitor their well-being.
Opening up the economy will help reduce some of the pressures on households but at the same time it is vital to increase access to GBV and child protection services. Even as restrictions relax under level 3 victims of violence will have limited opportunities to seek help. Establishing integrated systems to deal with both health and safety of women and children is vital.
Community testing teams screening for Covid-19 should also look for signs of abuse and provide information on support services for both women and children. Sending women and children to be isolated and quarantined in violent homes could be fatal. If referral pathways are made available at the point of entry into the health system we could save lives not just from Covid but also violence.
Online services are critical, and government has a responsibility to invest in ensuring that toll-free helplines are functional and to financially support civil society organisations delivering emergency services and shelters in communities to house women and children who need to flee from violent homes. In addition, social workers need to continue to monitor vulnerable families known to them through regular phone contact or messaging – during times of social distancing. When violence occurs they should use existing mechanisms to remove violent men rather than banishing women and children.
Finding innovative ways of providing support is critical. We should be drawing on lessons learnt from other countries who are further along the Covid-19 trajectory – for example France has developed multiple ways for women and children to sound an alert – through a text, when they visit a shopping centre, through pharmacies using codes. Returning to school could be the first opportunity to confide in a trusted adult, teachers need to be trained on how to identify signs and indicators and supported to deal with trauma arising from anxieties caused by the crisis.
Our risk adjusted strategy to combat Covid-19 must include measures to reduce violence against women and children. Community level approaches to identify children at risk should be prioritised - communities can play part in protecting vulnerable children and families, while also strengthening referral pathways is crucial to ensure that children are safe. The challenge is to remain responsive and provide an integrated response that protects both women and children and to ensure that the rights of women and children to be free from violence be upheld even in times of crisis.
* Professor Shanaaz Mathews is director of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, Lucy Jamieson is a senior researcher and Lehlogonolo Makola is a researcher at the institute.