COVID-19 and the rise of violence

Following her attendance at three UNESCO webinars, SI UN Representative, Marie-Christine Gries, discusses the rise in violence witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has triggered a sharp increase in violence around the world, especially in the domestic sphere, with women being disproportionately affected. Action on behalf of victims is urgently being taken by leaders in many countries, while civil society organizations are mobilising. But the fact remains that prevention has been inadequate and the problem is exacerbated in the event of a pandemic. We must learn from this and, accordingly, update existing measures, take new paths, educate young people, and change mentalities. UNESCO has been organising a series of webinars on various aspects and problems which have arisen during the current situation, which directly relate to UNESCO’s field of action.

Three webinars organised by UNESCO in April and May 2020, were devoted to the theme of violence arising from the pandemic. The theme was addressed by civil society actors in various contexts, local administrators and specialists, from several regions of the world, in particular elected mayors of the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR). The testimonies of all these speakers converge and are unfortunately distressing.

The pandemic and containment measures have generated an explosion of violence. Confinement has caused anxiety and psychological disorders, the closure of schools has de-socialised children and substitution schemes have proved ineffective and, above all, unequal. The collapse of economic activities has serious consequences, all of which have destabilised individuals and families and fostered global social degradation.

Domestic violence has increased by an average of 35 percent worldwide with localised peaks such as 37 percent in South Africa or Latin America, and a doubling in Lebanon. No region is spared, even where COVID 19 attacks are lowest. Women are the main victims of this violence. Her Excellency, Elena Bonetti, Minister for Equal Opportunities and Family of the Republic of Italy, spoke at the webinar held on 19 May, with a particularly strong affirmation, saying that this epidemic is plunging our society into the experience of a global crisis and that we need to change the paradigm. For proof, she relies on the greatest paradox of the crisis: women have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. They make up 70% of the hospital staff in Italy. In a less sexist, more inclusive society, they would have taken the leadership in preventing and combating the pandemic. But in fact, women are at risk of paying the cost of the crisis. One example of a setback for women: during the confinement, the majority of women in Italy assumed and managed fully the care of children. Some have probably lost their jobs permanently.

The economic situation has contributed to domestic violence. Mr. Humberto Carolo, representing the NGO ‘White Ribbon’ (Canada), referred to the domestic stress resulting from the loss of employment of men, which generates in them a reaction of violence, due to their integration of the “male” stereotype.  The majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men and so Mr. Carolo explained the need to campaign with men to help the violent to become aware of their behavioral problems and to learn to control themselves, to measure the consequences that may result from the acts perpetrated. More generally, there is a need to combat stereotypes and prejudices that require men to have a personality that fosters these behaviours. The education of boys must also change deeply.

Mr. Zacchiroli, ICCAR President, emphasised the violence of the economic crisis and its effects on poverty and inequality. A large number of people have indeed fallen into poverty. Other targets of violence are mainly foreigners, migrant workers or refugees. Mr Zacchiroli mentioned the large number of illegal workers in Italy (around 60,000 people) who were victims of racism and xenophobia, accused of importing the disease. Their situation is all the more difficult because many do not speak the Italian language and do not understand the instructions given by the authorities to fight contagion. In Barcelona, (report by Mrs Aida Guillen) an outbreak of racism has affected Asians and Africans, for the same reasons. The abundant dissemination of “fake news” on social networks has undoubtedly sharpened this emergence of racism, the stigma of scapegoats being quite characteristic of social crises or epidemics. It is also clear that the prevention of racism needs to be strengthened, while programmes facilitating inclusion through education must be at the heart of the mechanisms to be put in place.

The problems of inclusion appear to be acute in this situation, as well as the need for consultation between countries on the right measures, but taking into account cultural differences. For example, the mayor of Kampala, Uganda, explained during the webinar held on 20 April, the difficulties his city experienced in enforcing “social distancing measures”. The density of the population in the cities made this provision almost impossible to respect. Moreover, he explained, the local culture does not understand it.

Nor should we forget that the increase in violence also affects LGBT people, especially in their families, minorities, people with disabilities, in fact all those who are marginalised. The crisis reveals that despite the efforts of many, much remains to be done to eliminate social discrimination, racism, domestic violence, and achieve inclusion and equality between men and women. Progress is fragile and regressions occur quickly in times of crisis. An illustration of regression officially confirmed in France today: there is a sharp increase in sexual assaults and urban harassment against women. The sanitary mask hiding the face reinforces the audacity of aggressors and gives them a sense of impunity.

Civil society movements are working to put in place political measures, social actions and, above all, educational programmes to strengthen the fight against these problems. The Italian minister announced the creation in her country of a task force “women for a new renaissance” which will focus on highlighting, on the basis of the facts found, the impact of the crisis on the issue of gender, stereotypes and critical points hindering the empowerment of women, in particular, the issue of new disciplines, and STEM. In the renewal of its three-year plan for women, the pandemic experience will focus on protecting women, preventing violence and promoting autonomy and leadership, with a more comprehensive vision for the future.

Also participating in the webinar on 19 May, Ms Snezana Markovic Director General of Democracy, Council of Europe, said that the pandemic sheds new light on domestic violence in Europe. It is clear to her that support services are insufficient in such a situation. She concludes that the standards of struggle set out in the Istanbul Convention need to be updated. It should include the needs for assistance and the means to be put in place to combat violence, provide for its financing, specify the prosecution of perpetrators and sanctions. Victims must be able to complain (which already exists in some countries). There is a need for coordination of European policies. Prevention requires public information campaigns. Finally, specific measures (other than emergency measures) concerning older women, disabled people, prostitution, migrants and homeless women should be included. Ms. Markovic recalled the importance of collecting disaggregated data for the analysis of the situation.”

Click HERE to find out how Soroptimist clubs around the world are responding at a grassroots level to the growing needs of women and girls during the time of COVID-19.



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