Isolated, not alone: Gender violence in times of quarantine

Gender violence is the result of a patriarchal society structure on the basis of deep and historical inequalities between genders. These inequalities, socially sustained and transmitted from generation to generation, constitute an instrumental violence, which enables and perpetuates domination over women’s bodies and dissident sexualities. Why should we put gender-based violence back at the center of the discussion in this pandemic context? There are some answers below.

By Marcela Frencia *

As expected in the context produced by covid-19 and the social isolation measures taken by governments to prevent its spread, sexist violence has intensified, mainly that occurred in the domestic sphere. This situation has caused a regrettable and painful spike in the number of deaths of women due to gender violence (femicide). Deaths that we know could be avoided.

According to data from the Observatory of Gender-based Violence Ahora que sí nos ven (Now they see us), from the beginning of the quarantine (20th March) until 24th May, 55 femicides were registered in Argentina, the only crime that increased. In other words, the isolation policy dangerously increased gender inequalities and risks for women and LGBTIQ + people.

Some of the reasons for this have to do with the permanent and forced coexistence of women and transgender people with their abusers. It is a potentially devastating combination in homes with heightened stress caused by the worsening of the economic and social crisis.

Barriers to make complaints or asking for help have also increased. Although it has never been easy to report these situations, for multiple reasons such as fear, the absence of networks, the economic situation, the existence of dependants (children) and the compulsory confinement has further complicated the situation and has added obstacles.

We cannot wait for the solution to come from the victims. We cannot ask them to overcome all obstacles alone in order to avoid the dangerous situation in which they find themselves. As a society, we have to be prepared to accompany them in this process. The existence of support networks (relatives, friends, neighbours, etc.) willing to accompany are necessary to understand each individual process and to remove all gender stereotypes and discriminations.

In this sense, in many countries there is a rise in the number of calls seeking advice from the victim´s relatives, friends and neighbours. According to data provided on 4th May by the Uruguayan Vice President, Beatriz Argimón, in her country during quarantine there was an 80 percent increase in calls to consult about situations of gender violence. In turn, the director of the National Institute of Women (InMujeres) of Uruguay, Mónica Bottero, says that, generally, the contact is made by the same people who are going through situations of domestic violence or by third parties who want to know how they can help those women and where to start[1].

However, in addition to the exacerbation of domestic violence, certain conditions also increased the risks of suffering other types of violence. Women who are allowed to be outside during confinement are exposed to sexual violence in empty streets. Hyper connectivity to social networks have raised cyberbullying. According to a report by the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) in Argentina, during this quarantine, web browsing increased by 70 percent, while participation in social networks increased by 61 percent over normal usage rates. As a result of the rise in the use of social networks, there was also an increase in discriminatory practices, especially through comments and the dissemination of stigmatising “memes”.[2]

From different international organisations and government agencies, the problem is seen with concern and, in some cases, mechanisms and resources are available for urgent assistance and support.

But it is very important to emphasise that it is women’s organisations who are playing a fundamental role, being able to disseminate government programmes that provide assistance for different types of violence and being the main agents with the capacity to detect risky situations and to support complaints of acts of violence. That is why it is imperative to strengthen these organisations, so that they are in a position to fulfil this role and extend the support and prevention of violence to multiple areas.

 The tip of the iceberg

Although these situations are extreme, and produced in an “atypical” context, they are not new and only show us the crudest and most grotesque face of a patriarchal society. A society that is horrified by femicides but it does not stop supporting and allowing the conditions for them to happen. If we pay close attention, we can find out that we are only looking at the tip of a large iceberg, in which multiple inequalities underlie.

The tasks of caring and reproduction of daily life are a fundamental knot of many inequalities. For instance, mostly women are on the front lines of health care in the face of covid-19 disease (nurses, doctors, social workers, psychologists, cleaning staff in hospitals, and a long etcetera). According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), 70 percent of the world’s social health staff are female. However, the agency points out, half of the contribution of women to global health, which is equivalent to three trillion dollars a year, is unpaid.[3]

On the other hand, due to virtual classes and the lockdown of schools, domestic and childcare duties were multiplied and they now take full time. These tasks, which have historically been invisible and devalued, in the context of confinement are a priority and they are being absorbed almost exclusively by families and, within them, by women.

Finally, it is necessary to think about the full bodily autonomy of women and LBTIQ+ people, a pending matter that we have as a society. In this context of health emergency, the barriers to access to sexual and reproductive health are exacerbated. These rights already guaranteed by the different legal systems are being questioned or even violated. This produces considerable risks and violence on women, young people, children and LBTIQ + people.

Even though access to contraceptive methods cannot be interrupted, and legal interruptions of pregnancy has very fixed terms, since these rights are understood by the WHO as an essential service, real access to them is seriously compromised. On the one hand, a large part of the health system has been reassigned to work on covid-19 services. On the other hand, the issue is difficult to tackle because it continues being a taboo. “More than 47 million people with childbearing capacity, in 114 low- and middle-income countries, could lose their access to contraceptives, which could lead to seven million unintended pregnancies in the coming months worldwide if isolation lasts 6 months”[4], a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA for its acronym in English) warns.

Perhaps this challenging context is a good time to reflect. The feminist movement, represented by the green and purple tide, has given our society important tools to look at reality, make inequalities visible and expose the relations of power and domination around gender. This may make you uncomfortable, or create resistance to question privileges. But we are in unprecedented circumstances to bring to light the obvious inequalities and work on the redistribution of domestic and care tasks, the construction of new masculinities, the deconstruction of gender stereotypes, the deepening of comprehensive sexual education and the shaping of more equitable relationships, dismantling what hurts us today to put something new back together, something fairer for everyone.

* Coordinator of the Violence-Free Networks and Alliances – REDAL and Vivas Nos Queremos programmes.