When women and children cannot escape their abusers

By Sabine Saliba
BEIRUT, Jul 3 2020 (IPS) – Reports of escalating violence against women and children made the news almost every day in March and April following the announcement of lockdowns to control the spread of Covid-19. The main concern has been that victims cannot escape their abusers or seek help when they share a confined space and are under constant scrutiny and the threat of violence. In countries where schools were shut, children experiencing violence in the home now have little to no recourse to protection, such as reporting abuse to their teachers.
Despite the concerns, we hear less about the issue now. But while the interest in the media may have decreased, it is doubtful that the reality for children has changed. As the United Nations warned in April, violence by caregivers is the most common form of violence experienced by children. And if we look away now, the problem will not disappear.
The rise and drop in numbers are of equal concern
Perhaps the best indicator of changes in domestic violence rates is national helplines, which have recorded both rise and fall during lockdowns. Most helplines which have recently released figures have reported a sharp increase in reports of domestic violence generally.
According to a recent World Vision report that collated available data, there has been an average 32-percent increase in the number of calls to domestic violence helplines globally. Country figures range from a 12 percent increase in Spain and 27 percent in Montenegro to a 33 percent rise in Singapore, 50 percent in Lebanon and 75 percent in Chile.
The data does not disaggregate according to who the victims are, but we know that when children live in a home where violence against women is perpetrated, they are exposed to the violence and may also be victims of it.
Specifically concerning direct violence against children, some child helplines have also released disturbing figures. In only 11 days, India’s child helpline received more than 92,000 calls requesting protection from abuse and violence, which represent 50 percent more calls than usual. By mid-May, the Uganda Child Helpline had dealt with 881 cases since the lockdown began in late March – the average of cases received is usually 248.
The United Kingdom’s ChildLine noted an “unprecedented” rise in the number of calls in late March. Figures show that calls about children facing potential emotional abuse rose from 529 to 792 in the first month of the lockdown.
In April in Bangladesh, there was a 40 percent increase of calls to the child helpline, while cases of children being beaten by parents or guardians rose by 42 percent. And in Kazakhstan, in March alone, the national child helpline provided psychological, legal and social support to 16,310 children. The UN expert on violence against children explained that the “stress and anxiety parents and caregivers are feeling, including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – are a serious driver of violence in the home”.
Equally worrying is a decrease in reports of violence against children because it raises fears of children’s inability to report abuse. Bolivia reports an exponential drop in complaints of violence against women and girls since March compared to figures from last year.
To show the progression, there were 2.5 percent fewer complaints in January, 4.5 per cent fewer in February, 24.5 percent fewer in March, 65 percent fewer in April, and 59.5 percent fewer in May.
In Russia, the number of calls from children to the national helpline decreased during daytime hours, but increased during the night, which is thought to be because during the day children are in the company of their parents.
In March in the United States, despite the national hotline seeing a 23 percent increase in calls and a 263 percent increase in texts compared to the previous year, drops in complaints have been recorded in Colorado, Texas, Illinois and California. Caseworkers say the people trained to recognise abuse, like teachers and child care workers, were no longer able to see children after stay-at-home orders were announced.
When poverty leads to more violence
A particularly concerning cause of abuse is the growing financial crisis that many families are facing. In the Philippines, for instance, cases of online child sex abuse have tripled under the lockdown, with campaigners warning that cash-strapped relatives are among those exploiting children online for money in what has been called a “family-based crime”.
In almost three months, there were 279,166 cases of online child sex abuse in the Philippines, while there were 76,561 cases during this timeframe in 2019.
In other parts of the world, aid groups have warned that forced child marriages could be on the rise due to school closures, food insecurity and economic uncertainty triggered by the pandemic.
In Ethiopia, more than 500 girls have been rescued from forced marriages since March, while anecdotal evidence suggests spikes in other countries such as Afghanistan, India, South Sudan and Yemen. Faced with growing challenges to support their family, parents may marry off their daughters to reduce the number of mouths to feed or to access dowries.
“It really is a survival mechanism,” one expert said. The UN Population Fund has predicted 13 million more child marriages will take place in the next decade as a result of the anticipated economic consequences of the pandemic, as well as because of efforts to end child marriage being disrupted.
Positive responses
With many child protection services operating at a reduced level due to the infection, there is the risk that violence against children in the home will go unreported and therefore unnoticed. But some countries are trying to challenge this.
For instance, a few weeks into the lockdown, Germany classified child protection staff as essential workers who are allowed to continue working. Canada is investing in shelters for those fleeing gender-based violence. And in France, victims are being asked to report domestic abuse at pharmacies and to use code if they happen to be accompanied by their abusers, so that the pharmacies can in turn inform the police.
These are just some examples, but they represent the political will to not leave an ongoing social problem like domestic violence unchecked during a pandemic like Covid-19. We should not forget that domestic violence itself is an age-old pandemic that affects all societies.
(Sabine Saliba is Regional Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa at the Child Rights International Network (CRIN)