When the first incident of COVID-19 was announced in Wuhan, China, most people were not thinking about the impact the virus would have on sexual and domestic violence across the globe. Sadly, as some victims are battling COVID-19, they—and many others—are faced with the peril of sexual and domestic violence.
While the focus of world governments and public health officials has mainly been to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, little attention has been given to curbing the burgeoning public health harms around sexual and domestic violence that have increased in its wake.
Early on in the pandemic, Haley McNamara—VP at NCOSE and director of ICOSE—extrapolated rightfully that the pandemic would pose an adverse risk for victims of commercialized sexual exploitation (e.g. sex trafficking and prostitution). As the lockdown has continued, direct services and exit opportunities for victims have been cut off even though many are in dire need of assistance, Also worrisome is that data on sexual violence is likely going underreported due to victims being inhibited from reaching out for help while under the constant watchful eye of their abusers.
An aspect of sexual violence that has at times been overlooked in most parts of Africa is marital rape, although most African States do have laws against it. With COVID-19, which now keeps husbands and wives together for longer periods of time, some women have come forward to indicate that their spouses have used the lockdowns as an alibi for sexually abusing them. In Ghana, for example, it has been reported that some women are calling on the president to put a halt to the lockdown as their husbands were demanding too much of sex from them against their will while in quarantine.
Child or early marriage, too, is expected to be on the increase in many places as the result of schools being closed and children staying at home. The more children who are out of school, the higher the likelihood that they will be susceptible to sexual violence. The World Bank recognizes that by keeping children in school reduces the chances of getting married before 18 by five percent. Early and forced marriage come with consequences such as: unwanted child, pregnancy, increased STIs, illiteracy, poverty, and troubling trends in child and maternal mortality rates. These concerns have all been overshadowed by the Coronavirus in 2020.
As sexual violence takes a toll on victims, domestic violence also continues to create havoc. Katie Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Hotline warned recently that abusers are using COVID-19 as a pretext to keep their spouses away from friends and to deprive their spouses of financial support. Additionally, in Liberia, some police and security officers who should be serving as protectors for women have abused them for violating curfews put in place by the Government as the result of the lockdowns. For example, police reportedly got in a fist fight with one woman as the result of a heated argument and another lady was brutalized by police officers for parking her car after curfew hours. These incidents went viral on social media thanks to outrage from the public, but there are strong indications that law enforcement enforcers will continue to brutalize women as long as no punitive actions are taken against them for their actions.
It is true that social distancing and lockdown are important practices in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless if steps are not taken now to pay more attention to sexual and domestic violence, then they will continue to cause innumerable physical, psychological, emotional consequences for many and even death for some.
The battle against COVID-19 can be fought alongside combating sexual and domestic violence. For this to happen, service providers must be supported, governments must be proactive, hotlines must be reachable at all times, and victims and potential victims must speak out and, when they do speak out, we must all be ready and willing to listen and take action promptly.