THE COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone, everywhere around the world. However, it is affecting different groups of people differently and bringing to the fore existing inequalities. The pandemic has not only a huge death rate but also has devastating socio-economic consequences for different vulnerable groups such as elderly people, women, children and ethnic people. These groups are more exposed to vulnerabilities. Social distancing and home quarantine are successful strategies to ensure sanitisation, hygiene and disinfection that are in practice around the world.
However, the safest place ‘home’ is being the most unsafe place for one group of people who may suffer differently and severely from this social distancing and home quarantine — the victims/survivors of domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Early data indicate that restrictions on movement imposed by countries around the world have forced people to spend much more time at home which has led to a surge in domestic abuse cases. The current pandemic presents a combination of economic and health uncertainties that could stimulate an increase in domestic violence in Bangladesh too.
Statistics show that domestic violence is the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses. According to the World Health Organisation, one in every three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. Further, research has identified that during a crisis period the risk of domestic violence escalates as perpetrators seek to maintain a sense of power and control in their lives. The risk of domestic violence has increased because of COVID-19. Mounting data indicate that domestic abuse is acting as an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. Lockdown may also create a situation where victims are unable to leave the house to seek appropriate help and are more likely to be cut off from their usual support systems. Early data received from different parts of the United States, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore showed a significant rise in domestic violence cases. Researchers suggest that there was every reason to believe that the restrictions imposed to prevent the virus from spreading would have such an effect. According to the researchers, domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as the long public holidays and summer vacations. According to the deputy executive director of the United Nations Women, ‘the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.’ Such countries have already taken initiatives to protect women and children from violence. They have actively acknowledged the increased risks of domestic violence during isolation, and are making continuous announcements about helplines and shelter homes.
The situation is no different in Bangladesh. In the case of domestic abuse, much of it happens at the hand of members of the family who abuse, assault, humiliate and torture women and children. Previous data show that Bangladesh has a significant number of reported and unreported cases of domestic violence that includes different forms of abuses such as physical, verbal, financial, psychological and sexual. Because of the countrywide general holiday and restricted mobility, vulnerable women and children are trapped within the confines of their homes with their abusers. Earlier, they might have been safe for a limited time while they were out of home for work, school or the abusers were away for work. The pandemic situation is causing everyone to be constantly present at home with abusers who may exercise a stronger ability to control and terrify their victims. Another challenge of long-term home isolation can result in a reactive depression of working people because of the idle sitting at home, which can lead to stress, frustration and anger. It is often found that stressed people release their frustration on the weaker members of their family — women and children. Therefore, the home quarantine can be a double-edged sword for women and children in Bangladesh as it is apparently the only way to contain the spread of the virus, however, it may also trigger an increase in domestic violence. Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association has already reported a sharp rise in sexual violence including rape in February 2020. It is also predicted that unreported cases of domestic violence have also risen sharply during this pandemic period.
Domestic violence survivors suffer a range of serious physical and mental health consequences. They require urgent health responses that may include emergency services, psychological assessments and long-term support. The government should make emergency and long-term health support available to the victims. Additionally, non-governmental organisations, community based organisations, rights based organisations, religious leaders, telecommunication companies, and the media can play a significant role in this situation. Communication with the mass people is significantly essential to raise awareness and sensitise them about the harmful effects of domestic violence. It is also important to share information on how to contact the police and one-stop crisis centres via hotlines. Television channels can make programmes and disseminate information on scrolls against domestic violence. Non-governmental organisations, community based organisations, rights based organisations and religious leaders can raise awareness using different media and platforms. Social media can also be used as a digital platform to raise awareness against domestic violence. Moreover, the law enforcement agencies need to have more available functioning options to respond and take initiative immediately at all levels such as at the district and sub-district levels as well as in the metropolitan areas.
World leaders urge all governments to put women and children’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic. They also raised the urgency to take immediate measures to handle the accelerating risk of domestic violence caused by the COVID-19 home quarantine. As this crucial measure helps flatten the curve, it is inadvertently leading to a rise in domestic violence. It is an urgent call for Bangladesh to take immediate steps to protect women and children by expanding the appropriate support services. Gender equality and rights of women and children are essential to get through this pandemic together, to recover faster, and to build a better future for everyone.
Anita Jahid is a PhD candidate at the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University, Australia.
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