In times of crisis, the most vulnerable members of society are always at the highest risk of harm.
The stateless, the impoverished, the displaced, the abused.
These are the people who already lack access to healthcare, who don’t have a safe place to self-isolate and who risk being cut off from crucial services and support systems.
As with all crises, vulnerable women and girls must stay on the radar. Their risk of abuse increases, yet their visibility diminishes.
Times of crisis: The impact on women
In times of crises, we’re used to seeing how women and girls are at greater risk of poverty and abusive practices.
As women and girls’ education and livelihoods are disrupted, we know that the likelihood of being subjected to sexual violence, forced marriage and human trafficking increases.
In low and lower-middle-income countries, missing out on school will have a primary impact on young girls. With impoverished families worried about how they’ll feed their children, young girls risk being forced into child labour and early/forced marriage with little or no opportunity to continue their education.
Thereon, lies a lifetime of abuse, with these girls more likely to remain trapped in poverty and subject to sexual violence.
Likewise, for women living in poverty and/or engaging in informal care/domestic work or cash-in-hand jobs, any sense of financial aid crumbles. Women who rely on cash-based sources of income, who are unable to work in times of upheaval, lose a crucial sense of independence.
This then places them at risk of human trafficking as traffickers promise work opportunities abroad, before entrapping them into a life of financial, physical and/or sexual abuse.
Covid-19: Looking at gender
Whether in the global North or South, the right to life, to health and wellbeing are universal human rights.
Viruses like Covid-19 don’t discriminate in terms of nationality or ethnicity. They do however, hit the most vulnerable the hardest. The poor, the weak, the sick and the elderly are all hit harder than the rich, the strong, the healthy and the young.
As the Covid-19 outbreak has become a global pandemic, we must not forget vulnerable women and young girls, who tend to be more marginalised.
As with any crisis, it’s important to gather gender-segregated information and statistics. This critically includes the Covid-19 pandemic – something which has already been highlighted yet sadly ignored:
By monitoring the impact Covid-19 has on different people, we can ensure that we can best protect and support different segments of society according to their specific needs – including women and girls.
What medics have discovered so far is that the virus is physically affecting more men than women, with men more likely to die from the virus. This has been linked to comparatively stronger immune systems in women, as a result of biological and social factors.
At the same time, although women are less likely to be critically affected by the virus, the majority of care-givers (looking after family members), care-workers (working in residential homes for the elderly), social workers, cleaners in hospitals and nurses are women. So women are affected by the virus as well.
Around 70% of the global health workforce is made up of women. With higher numbers of women in health and care work therefore on the frontlines, women are more likely to be exposed to the virus.
On top of this, staff in the health sector are sadly and astonishingly often victims of abuse and the risks may even increase during pandemics.
Financial abuse: Women without means
In addition to the risk of abuse inside health settings, women in precarious work situations are also at risk of physical and financial abuse. This includes domestic workers in the Middle East from Africa and Asia who face increased challenges during lockdown.
Women already account for 80% of the 67 million domestic workers (aged 15+) worldwide and the UN International Labor Organization shows that domestic workers are “the most likely to face abuse and exploitation in their place of work”.
Unable to leave their workplace to look after their loved ones at home, they are likely to become increasingly more anxious, while still having to work for their employers. They will be the ones who will have to go to the markets and the supermarkets to buy food for their employers, those potentially exposing themselves to the virus.
For those in low-paid jobs, the impact of the pandemic on the global economy also means a loss of jobs for many people.
But on top of that, women face challenges because of the work they do inside the home. Women already undertake three times as much unpaid care work as men, looking after children and elderly relatives. For women who lose their jobs because of the crisis and who live with an abusive partner, the situation is even more bleak. Crucially, they will lose a critical means of financial independence and find it harder to leave the site of their abuse.
Although abuse is always in the hands of the abuser, poverty-related stress has been found to trigger physical violence – sometimes an abuser carries out acts of violence against their own family members, their spouses and their children. Furthermore, 95% of victims of domestic abuse are subjected to financial abuse as well as physical abuse.
For women living with their abusers, domestic abuse is a daily threat: worse if they no longer have a safe working environment in which to find sanctuary, or if they feel trapped through isolation. And for those without a means of income, living with an abusive partner places them at risk of complete financial dependence and no means to escape.
The link between financial and physical abuse is therefore revealing of another high concern amongst families, civil society organisations and governments: domestic abuse in lockdown.
Self-isolation: A hidden killer
Domestic violence is steeped in power and control. And whilst many of us look to our families and homes as a place of solace, vulnerable women – and men – now find themselves in a self-contained prison of abuse.
Trapped at home with their abusers, they’re isolated from the people and the resources that could help them. Further cut off from support networks and loved ones, victims will also be fearful of going to the local hospital, afraid of catching Coronavirus.
It already takes on average a victim to experience 50 incidents of abuse before getting effective help. Now, things will be even harder and we’ve already started seeing the impact globally.
One woman working in the sector in the USA described how a client was scared to seek medical attention for the injuries caused by her abuser:
I spoke to a female caller in California that is self-quarantining for protection from Covid-19 due to having asthma… Her partner strangled her tonight. While talking to her, it sounded like she has some really serious injuries. She is scared to go to the ER due to fear around catching Covid-19.
Likewise, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives of women is being documented in Asia and France.
Here in the UK, we’ve heard how lockdown will lead to a “domestic abuse pandemic”. More than 25 organisations who work to support women affected by domestic violence have already confirmed a greater workload and higher traffic to their website. In fact, the demand is so high that they simply don’t have the resources to offer as much support to everyone as they would like.
In countries across Europe and North America, measures and systems are in place to attempt to address the physical and emotional abuse women are struggling with alone. In Spain for example, pharmacies have set up the code word “mask-19” to allow women being abused to discretely utter the code word to staff and seek help.
Here in the UK, the government has also released special guidelines for victims of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Protecting women: Speaking out against abuse
It’s therefore no secret that women already suffering behind closed doors, remain ever more at risk.
Whilst we know that we have to follow the government guidelines on social distancing and isolation, we must also recognise that this can lead to abusers becoming even more violent and controlling than they were before.
As fear, worry and anxiety grow and as people are limited in what they are able to do, some abusers exert their control in even more damaging ways than they did before. With no means of escape, abused women are at even greater risk.
Wherever we are, we must stand with vulnerable women and girls and let them know that they are not alone.
We need to reach out to women and girls, keep lines of communication open and realise the risks out there.
If you suspect a woman is at risk of abuse, pick up the phone. Seek advice and let her know she is not alone. Find details about places that can help abused women and pass those details on. Call the police if necessary.
We need to let women know that we’re here and we stand with them.
As we in the aid community look to adapt during these unprecedented times, our thoughts and prayers go out to the women who are paying double the price during times of crisis.
May Allah (SWT) protect them all, ameen.
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