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Domestic violence and the pandemic

What does national data say?

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Throughout the pandemic, draconian measures supposed to keep people safe have not always protected our most vulnerable. Rates of domestic violence have increased across the world. Stephanie Wallace, a research assistant at Argentina-based security and defence think tank, RESDAL, looks at the trends in Latin America, asking what the data can tell us about gender-based violence during the pandemic, and how this can inform public policy in the region.


The Shadow Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across Latin America have assumed emergency powers, granting them the authority to enforce stay-at-home orders, lockdowns and quarantines. Whilst these measures have been designed and have indeed served to protect people from the spread of COVID-19, they have also endangered the most vulnerable segments of the population in other ways.

It is within the context of COVID-19 that a new pandemic has surged: that of domestic violence. This has been coined the ‘shadow pandemic’ by the UN amidst attempts to create awareness about the increase in this unsettling phenomenon.

The shadow pandemic is far-reaching, and does not discriminate between countries or individuals according to their development status or wealth. Conversely, it penetrates a range of households and affects people in the most intimate spheres of their lives. 

The most concerning trend found by Argentina-based security and defence think tank RESDAL (Red de Seguridad y Defensa de America Latina), in a recent enquiry, is that domestic violence has certainly been exacerbated by stay-at-home orders. This is predominantly because women are now trapped in a restricted space with their abusers. 

However, in the current circumstances, money-related concerns and a latent sense of societal insecurity and anxiety may also be contributing to an increase in such abusive behaviour. Whilst this trend is discernible across all regions, it is particularly concerning for Latin America – a region which already suffers considerable gender inequality.

In order to analyse the situation across Latin American countries, with a view to offer policy recommendations, RESDAL collected data from national helplines managing cases of gender-based violence.

RESDAL specifically analysed calls which reported instances of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, focusing particularly on reports made during the national lockdowns. They also examined legislation criminalising domestic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse as well as programmes designed to combat and mitigate gender-based violence. The researchers then used socio-economic data to contextualise any trends they found. 

Most Latin American countries were included in the research with the exception of Venezuela and Haiti, where hotlines did not continue to operate during the pandemic or data was insufficient. 

What picture does the data paint?

As expected, in most countries, reports of domestic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse rose during national lockdowns. However, there were a few countries – including Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic – where there were fewer reported cases of domestic violence and sexual exploitation, than during the same period the previous year. 

As indicated, there was a general increase in calls to helplines over the first six months of 2020.

But these figures may not fully reflect what was going on. Living under lockdown measures meant many women were cut off from society and had to increasingly depend financially on an abusive partner. Such increased vulnerability means a woman may be less likely to report abusive behaviour for fear of repercussions – stigmatisation and re-victimisation. As a result of such reluctance, the true figures could be worryingly higher.

This underlines the importance of governmental response to the virus and its consequences. Protection and support for victims of abuse, and properly holding perpetrators to account, becomes even more critical while living under lockdown security measures.

The average number of calls made every 24 hours to the helplines across 5 months in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Are services reliable?

It is important to discover whether reporting services are available, accessible and even effective. In many cases, helplines are inaccessible, and resources are overstretched due to a lack of funding which may help to explain the apparent decline in cases in Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. 

The contrary may also be true. For example, in Peru, there has been a gradual increase in the number of calls registered for sexual violence over the last six years. This does not necessarily mean there has been a real increase in cases, rather it could be the result of improved reporting services and data handling capacity. 

Women’s march against femicide, Montevideo, Uruguay. UN Women/ Flickr

Has femicide become a typical offence in Latin America?

The most serious offence analysed was that of femicide for which Latin America has among the highest rates in the world.

Consequently, Latin American national governments have been subject to public pressure to implement specific legislation to criminalise the offence and develop and activate programmes which respond appropriately to such instances. Only Cuba and Haiti have failed to produce specific legislation to penalise femicides.

If we focus on the lockdown period, we find that most Latin American countries did indeed register an increase in the rate of femicides through the months of May and June.  Naturally, the degree of this increase varied according to the individual country and the timeframe. 

Despite the shocking figures attributed to femicide in Latin America, the worldwide comparison is skewed as there are many countries around the world which do not legislate specifically against femicide, relying instead on the penal code and general criminal law which lump femicide in with general gender-based violence or homicide. Most Latin American countries do have legislation specifically criminalising the offence, so that observatories and ministries in the region are able to collect and analyse data.

It is worth emphasizing that most Latin American countries have implemented some level of legislation which prohibits and responds to instances of gendered violence, and specifically identifies women and/or girls as the victims. For example, El Salvador’s legislation states: “Ley especial integral para una vida libre de violencia para las mujeres” (The First Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women). Specific legislation is essential as it allows fundamental details about domestic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse to come to light; offences can be appropriately categorised, and the relevant data about victims and offenders can be collected and analysed.

Screenshot from The Shadow Pandemic: Domestic violence in the wake of COVID-19, UN Women.

How should governments deal with gender-based violence in times of emergency?

Ultimately, domestic violence and sexual exploitation and abuse can only be addressed effecively where survivors are encouraged to come forward and report crimes. This objective is achievable if governments can provide accessible helplines, community outreach and trained staff who can appropriately manage and respond to specific cases. 

Governments must not overlook the detrimental effect that crises and emergencies can have on women and should strive to always prioritise and incorporate gender into their responses; the repercussions of not doing so have been demonstrated by the disturbingly significant increase of gender-based violence (GBV) during COVID-19. An effective and efficient response would surely increase public trust in the institutions involved and promote the willingness of survivors to report. 

Looking to the future, governments should continue to expand and corroborate response capacities whilst all the time endeavouring to introduce and implement preventative measures.

While these steps may be advised, governments across Latin America simply haven’t stepped up to protect victims abuse, and organisations – which have suffered from cuts to funding, overstretching of resources and lack of provisions – have stepped in to fill the gap. Refuges are full up and many helplines have collapsed. In some cases, new services have been created, like the helpline started by a group of women in Bogota, which became a sorority network.

For victims and those working with them, the attention of national authorities is paramount. For this reason, RESDAL is making the following policy recommendations to governments.

Policy recommendations from RESDAL

1) In times of emergency, governments should categorise gender-based violence service providers as first responders:

As exemplified through the last year, instances of GBV tend to increase during times of emergency or crisis. The impact of these offences is pervasive and long-lasting especially if they are not properly handled. Therefore, during emergencies, domestic violence (DV) and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) must not be deprioritised. Rather, the government should categorise GBV with other emergencies and, subsequently, endeavour to ensure the relevant service providers are available to be deployed whenever required.

2) Establish effective and accessible data systems for managing sexual violence:

Equally, each government should facilitate and promote a standardised data collection process and fluid inter-institutional communication between all the relevant institutions working with these issues. Adopting a comprehensive and collective approach would prevent various institutions from conducting research according to diverse methodologies which can result in disparity across the data. Such an approach would also assist in ensuring an efficient and speedy trial and conviction of perpetrators which would expectedly serve to prevent future offences. 

Moreover, institutions should be encouraged to thoroughly disaggregate the data they collect according to periodicity, gender and age of victim and perpetrator, etc. Whilst the current disaggregation of data is commendable in many of the cases analysed, there is considerable progress still to be made. Organising data in a methodical and efficient manner facilitates a thorough analysis which means decision-makers will not overlook significant details; instead, they will be able to adopt the most effective response and optimise their use of time during emergencies.

3) Improve and restrategise response to SEA and DV by government agencies according to local context and current circumstances:

The original research which provided the basis for this report showed that certain types of violence may be more typical of certain countries according to the diverse threats prevailing in local contexts. In such a way, in seeking to mitigate GBV it is paramount that governments empower (financially or otherwise) civil society organisations and specialised institutions so that they can accurately identify the needs of local women. In this regard, the relevant institutions must also exercise a degree of flexibility so that they can adapt to changing circumstances and evolve their response to accommodate new developments which may adversely impact females.

You can read the full RESDAL newsletter, ‘Responses to Domestic Violence and Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: Latin America, MENA and West Africa‘ – available in English or in Spanish.


Main image: Screenshot from The Shadow Pandemic: Domestic violence in the Wake of COVID-19, UN Women.

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