Opinion
protesting women 'They don't look after us, they abuse us.'

Coronavirus lockdown is exacerbating domestic abuse

Female lives are being disregarded during the crisis, just as they normally are

Amid the panic and uncertainty of the Mexican lockdown, some aspects of daily life become clearer, more certain, in fact. While the monotony of quarantine is innocuous enough in the majority of households, certain women up and down the country are becoming more assured of their danger.

As with any crisis, the full collateral damage is far more widespread than can be observed at first glance, and for the victims of chronic domestic abuse, lockdown does little to protect them from the violence they face on a day to day basis.

Mexico’s reputation, along with Latin America’s as a whole when it comes to the safety of women, is checkered to say the least. In the context of a national lockdown, it becomes relevant to re-analyse the levels of gender-based violence and how the new measures will continue to alter the female reality going forward.

While it is true that notable decreases in violence are taking place in direct correlation to lockdown measures, violence against women is a prominent outlier.

The measures put abuse victims in situations proven to enhance their danger. Experts have found that women are more likely to be attacked by a spouse in situations where the possibility of separation, if only for a short amount of time, is not possible.

Enforced quarantine has landed hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women in inescapable one-on-one situations with abusive partners, denying the possibility of momentary separation that has been proven to drastically lower the risk of violent outbursts. In addition to this, children are home from school, a factor that often contributes to outbursts of anger from an abusive spouse.

Abuse is also exacerbated by the countless ripple effects associated with the pandemic. Primarily, families are financially destabilized, unable to work and, in Mexico, often without the welfare infrastructure to protect them from the fallout. Financial stresses have always been known to increase the risk of domestic abuse, but the economic impact of a job loss or closure of one’s business naturally leads to totally unprecedented money situations for families nationwide.

The inability to access basic services, be they shops, pharmacies, or even public spaces such as parks and meeting places, means that tensions multiply and the tools to escape abuse fall further out of reach. For women experiencing regular domestic violence, the home during lockdown can easily become the breeding ground of abuse.

Those manning the phones at the Citizens Council for Mexico City, a joint government and citizen led initiative,  would be the first to corroborate the rapidly changing state of play. Their organization has reported a rise of 25% in calls to their helpline, and they have been continuously hiring over the past two months in order to deal with the sheer number of cases reported to them. But this is nothing compared to the calls received by the National Network of Women’s Shelters, which has experienced a 60% increase in appeals for help.

These organizations are working over and above their capacity and claim that more energy and manpower needs to be focused on helping those experiencing domestic abuse, and in turn, the institutions on the front lines. Paradoxically, it is precisely the point at which they need support the most that the government is unable to provide it. In a continuation of events experienced by the entire world, not just Mexico, services that are desperately needed are currently those it can’t afford.

Mexico isn’t the only country in this situation. The United Kingdom has reported a doubling of femicides within its month long lockdown, France has experienced a 30% rise in abuse cases, and the severity of domestic violence in Germany led one newspaper to run with the headline “Suppress corona, not your voice.”

The truth is that the entire world is dealing with this crisis of violence. The test will be which countries truly treat it as a priority and Mexico is yet to prove it has the resources and the will to resolve the spiralling danger.

Countless women have found themselves oppressed by measures designed to protect them, experiencing their homes not as the refuge they should be in a time like this, but as an assurance of their own danger. The lockdown is essential, but the preparedness and forethought for the vulnerable in this crisis has been lacking.

No one can blame inaction simply on an absence of resources. To do so would miss the bigger picture — the significance of violence against women is all too often downplayed, and current circumstances simply highlight a continuation of this.

President López Obrador’s administration itself has a spotted record when it comes to reacting to gender violence, having likened femicides to “regular homicides,” calling for a vague “strengthening of values” to combat femicides, and continuing to support one cabinet minister who suggested women should not go on strike so that they can stay home and “do the dishes.”

A shadow of familiar scepticism has already crept into the dialogue. Words from the government claim that reports of rising abuse amid the lockdown are false, and that reports to the contrary are nothing more than assumptions.

The problem is one that, given what we know, shouldn’t surprise us; female lives are being disregarded in crisis, just as they are in the everyday. Prosecution rates for femicides are shockingly low, around 2%, and the fact that over 80% of crimes against women go unreported places women at a severe disadvantage in the pursuit of justice.

Ten women a day are being killed, and their own government drags its feet in admitting that femicide is a unique and distinct form of violence. It is unfortunate but inevitable then that a country unwilling to recognize the experiences of abused women would continue to ignore them when the very fabric of society begins to tear. But simple and effective measures exist; these could include designating women’s shelters and crisis centers as essential services so they can remain open, deploying the appropriate aid to the front lines, or converting unused spaces such as hotels into temporary accommodation for women in danger.

Sadly, it is unlikely that the appropriate actions will be taken over the next few weeks, given the lackadaisical responses we have become accustomed to over the last few years.

Immediate steps are ready and waiting to be taken, steps that would immediately provide relief to the thousands of women at risk. But the response to domestic abuse during this crisis will continue to send a message even after the pandemic subsides, and the awareness of gender-based violence as exacerbated by Covid-19 may follow us back to everyday life.

As Mexico returns to normal, the country’s reaction to the plight of abuse victims will inform how it continues to help them, and if we allow the ruling culture to get away with the bare minimum now, it is certain that it will get away with the bare minimum after.

Jack Gooderidge writes from Campeche.

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