National level data from several countries had shown an increase in women’s welfare between 2016-2019. This is in stark contrast to the first half of 2020, where all metrics of women’s welfare, especially in domestic violence and trafficking, have worsened as a consequence of the pandemic.
Intimate Partner violence is any violent, threatening, coercive or controlling behavior that occurs in current or former family, domestic or intimate relationships. It can include “physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional and psychological abuse, economic control, social isolation and any other behavior that may cause a person to live in fear”. The UN reports that globally, 243 million women have been a victim to violence from an intimate partner in the last 12 months. However, since the lockdown in March, France has reported a 30% increase in domestic violence reports, and Cyprus and Singapore have reported over 30% increase in helpline calls. Argentina has reported a 25% increase in domestic violence cases, and the US, UK, Germany, Canada and Spain have reported a spike in the number of cases as well as demands for emergency shelters for victims. Non-profit support groups for violence against women in Singapore, Australia and India have reported an increase in the number and complexity of helpline requests in the last couple of months. This data reflects only a partial picture of increasing violence against women.
Trafficking in Persons refers to “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Previous trends, such as the increase in human trafficking cases after the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa prove that countries facing health emergencies are likely to have increased trafficking.
There are several reasons why the pandemic is leading to increasing rates of domestic violence and human trafficking worldwide. The first reason is the adoption of the unprecedented public safety measures in countries as a response to increasing cases in COVID-19. Social distancing measures and stay at home orders have led to women’s confinement at home. Lack of mobility means that women no longer have safe spaces where they can seek support and respite from their abusers. Social isolation has also led to lack of access to social support networks, such as their relatives or friends houses or workplaces. Stringent mobility also affects victims of trafficking, once rescued, they are unable to go home due to closed borders. Additionally, as fewer people go out in public places, women’s safety is endangered outside of home as well.
The second reason is the shrinking public service networks and overburdened health infrastructure due to the pandemic. Public service networks such as non-profits, legal services and law enforcement have been defunded, temporarily paused or have diverted their interests. As a result, victims of human trafficking and domestic violence are unable to access helplines or shelters, and legal proceedings are stuck or delayed. Additionally, healthcare infrastructure, which is essential for clinical and mental health services to victims of violence are overburdened from those sick from COVID-19, and these important services are being denied to many victims.
The third reason is the increasing levels of poverty and unemployment due to the pandemic have led to greater vulnerability of women to domestic violence and trafficking. Women are less likely to leave their abusers during an economic recession, since establishing financial independence becomes more difficult. Additionally, studies have shown that as men face unemployment and poverty due to significant sudden changes, they can exhibit abusive behavior toward their partners. Poverty rates in women and children has risen, and as their sources of livelihood shrink, they become more vulnerable to fall prey to traffickers for a quick source of income.
These effects of the pandemic show unequal effects across class and social strata in different countries, as a result, the most vulnerable populations of the world are made even more vulnerable due to these factors. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has issued reports and laid out measures for governments to protect these victims. UDODC has recommended governments take steps to ensure that while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed; and help anti-trafficking units to get the protective equipment they need, provide funding to assist victims who need additional support during this crisis and helping countries to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on resources for victims and on law enforcement and justice systems. A UN Women report on Violence against women commends the innovative solutions involving technology (such as setting up a message-based helpline service in Spain) and training postal workers and delivery drivers to look for signs of abuse in the UK.
Broadly, the UN recommends treating social services involved in enduring the safety of victims as essential services during the pandemic, which can lead to increased access to services like shelters and helplines. The UN also recommends comprehensive training to first responders, and to ensure that data on the impact of COVID-19 is continuously collected and used as evidence in policy-making.
*Ananya Kumar è stata una stagista di WIIS Italy durante l’estate 2020