Domestic violence on the rise amid pandemic

The novel coronavirus has swept across the globe leaving death and economic destruction in its wake. Like any other pandemic, the loss of life and livelihoods is tragic, but expected. But there is one consequence of Covid-19 that thus far has been under-reported, and that is the causal effect between confinement and violence against women and children. 

It might come as news to some, but there is nothing novel about domestic violence in times of crisis, especially when governments resort to restricting movement as a means to control the spread of disease.

Since we began our corona journey here in Kenya, we have recorded a spike in sexual offences across the country. In fact, over the past few weeks, more than a third of all criminal matters reported to the authorities have been sexual in nature. In March alone, 106 cases were reported through the Gender ministry’s toll free sexual and gender-based violence helpline (1195). This is 56 more cases than were reported in January before Kenyans got wind of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ministry has acknowledged that women (and children, I might add) are relatively at a higher risk of suffering gender-based violence during the curfew period. So, on the one hand you have official figures of cases that are reported, and on the other, the stark reality of those that never see the light of day.

However, not a day goes by without unreported accounts of women being battered or evicted in the dead of night, children being thrashed for ‘indiscipline’, and girls being sexually violated. You might say that domestic violence is an ugly feature of any society, even without a crisis, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been many more cases of violence against women and children in this time of corona than any of us would like to admit.

The question is, what can we do about it? With or without a global health crisis, women who remain in violent domestic situations have reasons, some of which may seem perfectly in order given their unique circumstances.

From the outside, calling the cops, or involving the criminal justice system in one way or the other, often seems like the righteous thing to do. But professionals who work with battered women will tell you that ‘saving’ women from abusive husbands is rarely as simple as filing a police report.

The capacity of battered women is often so diminished that they are unable to make beneficial choices. Beyond that, there are other factors at play, not least of which is financial dependence, especially when there are children involved.

This leaves first responders in a moral dilemma. The very nature of intimate relationships means that responses must be nuanced. Calling the police to save a wife or girlfriend in distress might save her life for a night, but result in a prolonged period of even worse abuse as the official process unfolds. So, what do you do when your neighbour is screaming for help in the midnight hour?

The truth is that you probably don’t have enough information to intervene in a way that will result in the greatest good. On the other hand, turning away and ignoring her cries for help would be cruel. In an ideal situation, every domestic violence response team would include a person trained to deescalate tensions in the home without placing the woman at further risk. That not being the case, it is up to family, friends, and neighbours to react in the manner that they feel will do no additional harm.

For most of us, this means calling the cops, or even intervening personally to protect women from assault, and maybe even death. The problem here is that we interrupt acts of violence in the heat of the moment, but more often than not, we don’t follow up to engage with the survivors and help them find a way to ensure that the violence stops completely.

And herein lies the rub: To move from righteousness to impact, we need to make long-term commitments to the women we ‘save’. I often wonder what I would do. The truth is I would also call the cops, or find a way to trigger a community response mechanism. I wouldn’t want to go to sleep and wake up only to find out that a woman, and/or her children were beaten to death overnight. If I’m really honest, I’d be thinking about myself, and how bad I would feel. The trick here, I think, is to think about survivors of violence and their feelings and well-being in the long run.

Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation