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20 April 2020
OPINION: Breathing through the wound: Gender-based violence during the COVID-19 lockdown

“Abusers exploit the current pandemic to extend their power and control over victims, using the coronavirus as a scare tactic to further isolate victims from their children, family and friends for fear of infecting them. These abusers use misinformation about the virus or withhold sanitizers to prevent the victim from seeking medical attention.” Dr Jill Ryan

In South Africa, the saying ‘breathing through the wound’ indicates a very uncomfortable or difficult predicament - a saying aptly describing most SA citizens’ quarantine sentiment shown on social media sites, but also expressed in the recent wave of unrest in Cape Town. However, this saying takes on a very ominous meaning in light of the recent statistics on gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

Worldwide, countries such as France, Argentina, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Singapore and Kosovo have all experienced a 17 to 33% increase in GBV since their respective lockdown periods, with Tunisia seeing a five-fold increase in GBV since its lockdown. Since quarantine, Canada, Spain, Germany, the USA and the UK have seen increased demand for shelters, with helplines experiencing double their calls in Lebanon and Malaysia, and triple call volumes in China. In places such as Australia, search engines like Google are seeing the highest amount of searches for GBV assistance over the past five years.

Within the first week alone of our current lockdown, South African Police Services (SAPS) received 2,320 complaints of gender-based violence (which are only the reported cases), with only 148 related charges laid. These statistics represent a 37% increase in the weekly average of South African GBV cases reported for 2019. Separate to SAPS figures, our National Gender-Based Violence Command Centre has received triple the amount of calls, and among our first publicised cases, a 75-year-old woman, brutally raped and strangled by suspects posing as SANDF soldiers.

Emergency crises are known to cause a spike in GBV. In fact, during Hurricane Katrina there was a 98% increase in physical violence against women; from 2014 to 2016, school closures during the Ebola outbreak revealed spikes in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse and teen pregnancies. With school closures, restricted public gatherings, and caregivers more preoccupied with seeing to basic needs (such as getting food or looking after sick relatives), children do not partake in supervised play or activities. This demonstrates that our most vulnerable are at risk during times such as this.

Home-based quarantine, though necessary in reducing Covid-19 transmission, is known to impact individuals’ socio-economic as well as psycho-social well-being. Feelings of depression, boredom, anxiety and worry are common during quarantine, yet these are compounded amongst victims of GBV. Abusers exploit the current pandemic and use misinformation about the virus to extend their power and control over victims, using the coronavirus as a scare tactic to further isolate victims from their children, family and friends for fear of infection.

Seeking aid during this time may be challenging due to restricted movement, but we must not feel it is impossible. The law is not suspended during the lockdown period, but it most definitely needs to be more responsive and sensitive to cases of GBV at this time. It is not enough to say that victims must reach out and notify whoever they can, be it a relative or the police (although this is vital!). First responders need to know how to respond to GBV amidst the pandemic, and should connect victims with targeted support services and care, which must be supported and made available during lockdown.

Furthermore, it must be ensured that measures are put in place to prevent child-family separation, to support children left alone without adequate care due to the hospitalisation or death of a parent or caregiver as a result of the pandemic. We need to work together as a society, and on every level, to ensure those in need are heard and helped effectively. If we do not, the plight of victims is overshadowed by the pandemic - victims who felt overlooked and underserved even before COVID-19 arrived. If the response is not adequate or effective, GBV organisations may be prophetic in saying ‘it will not only be the virus that kills us’.

Anyone in need of GBV-related help can contact the National Gender-based Violence Command Centre on 0800 428 428, or use the ‘please call me’ option on *120*7867.

For shelter, or information on shelters and GBV safety planning, see the National Shelter Movement South Africa (NSM) - a body representing 78 shelters for abused women and children across the country - on Facebook, or contact NSM members:

Western Cape - Bernadine Bachar on 082 903 8739 or Joy Lange on 071 906 3949;
Northern Cape - Clair Adriaanse on 080 021 2321 or Rosaline Bailey on 073 888 8738;
Gauteng - Rudo Muhasa on 083 684 7737 and Zubeda Dangor on 083 289 9818.
Free State - Sarah Lekale on 072 144 7171;
Mpumalanga - Fisani Mahlangu on 079 310 9633
KwaZulu-Natal - Sabera Timol on 072 446 3337;
Eastern Cape – Chrislynn Moonieyan/Masimanyane Shelter on 081 247 6056;
North West - Rina van der Berg on 072 348 6526;

Dr Jill Ryan is a guest lecturer at the Child and Family Studies Unit, UWC, and an alumnus and senior scientist at Cochrane South Africa (South African Medical Research Council).