Our Covid-19 strategy must include measures to reduce violence against women and children

3 Jun 2020 - 07:30

by Shanaaz Mathews, Lucy Jamieson and Lehlogonolo Makola

Originally published on IOL, 26 May 2020

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.