A pandemic within the pandemic

  • MIKE WATSON IMAGES

Published: 9/22/2020 3:32:29 PM

On March 23, 2020, as COVID-19 was overtaking the world, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleaded for peace: “To warring parties: Pull back from hostilities. silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes … End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere. Now. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

Two weeks later, horrified by the global surge in male violence against women, he again implored for peace: ”Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for COVID-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes. Today I appeal for peace in homes around the world. I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

In every region of the world, battery and sexual assault of women and girls isolated at home increased with the spread of the coronavirus. Reports from China’s Hubei province indicated that domestic violence tripled during February 2020 compared to February 2019. In France violence against women increased 30% after they initiated a March 17 lockdown; in Argentina, by 25%; and in Singapore, 33%. The pandemic in sexual assault of women and girls followed the COVID-19 pandemic in what Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called “a perfect storm for … violent behaviour behind closed doors.” By the end of May 2020, nearly250 million women and girls had reported suffering sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner, a far greater number than those infected by the virus.

”Stay Safe — Stay Home” is one of the essential public health measures in containing the COVID virus. Yet home is a most dangerous and unsafe place for those 1 in 3 women worldwide who are physically and/or sexually abused over their lifetime, most by a male relative or intimate partner at home. Further, their intimate partners commit one-half of femicides — the killing of women because they are women — throughout the world. School, the workplace outdoors, anywhere is safer than home for women and girls threatened with domestic violence.

What of the situation in the United States? Crime rates plunged in cities and counties across the U.S. over the second half of March — with one exception, domestic violence — as mandatory stay-at–home orders drove millions of residents to stay inside their homes. Calls by victims of domestic violence surged between 10% and 30%, according to an analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states

Another more nuanced study found that the crimes that have dropped are more minor, younger peer group crimes such as vandalism, car theft and DUIs. The graver crimes of homicide and aggravated assault have remained the same. Only intimate partner violence has increased.

Close to home

By mid-June 2020, after the first three months of “stay in place” practices in Massachusetts, 18 strangulations had been reported to the Domestic Violence High Risk Team in the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office. Very likely the number is much higher. Mary Kociela, director of Domestic and Sexual Violence Projects for that office points out the gravity of this felony crime: Research has shown that “a victim who is strangled by their intimate partner is seven times more likely to be killed by that partner.” Non-fatal strangulation carries the menacing message ”I CAN kill you.”

She urges those experiencing and at risk of physical and sexual violence to call: Franklin County NELCWIT 413 772-0806; Hampshire County-Safe Passage 413-586-5066; Llamanos Spanish Language Line 800-223-5011.

But, ending the Stay in Place order won’t end violence against women. On average, at least one in three women in the U.S. is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.

More than one in three women regularly fears being sexually assaulted, according to a new report from Gallup,

Violence against women is the most common but least punished crime in the world, according to the UN; and it is a catastrophic obstacle for achieving women’s equality everywhere.

As with systemic racism, we must as a society excavate and eliminate the systemic roots of violence against women and girls: namely gender inequality, rape culture and the failure to treat violence against women as a serious offense.

Peace on earth begins with peace at home.

H. Patricia Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.

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