Covid-19 and the increase in domestic violence in Asia Pacific

With more countries undergoing lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19, the dangers of another public health issue—domestic violence—become apparent.

Women marching against gender-based violence in 2018
Women marching against gender-based violence in 2018. While people shouldn’t take to the streets during this Covid-19 period, the issue of domestic violence is more pertinent now than ever. Image: Jakarta Feminist Association

Almost one-fourth of the world’s population is currently on lockdown, and more countries are following suit to prevent further spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

While this crucial measure is helping to flatten the curve, it is inadvertently leading to the rise of another public health issue—domestic violence.

Research has shown that during a period of crisis, the risk of domestic violence escalates as perpetrators seek to maintain a sense of power and control in their lives. The current pandemic presents a combination of economic and health uncertainties that could spur an increase in domestic violence. 

Lockdown orders also mean that victims are unable to leave the house to seek appropriate help and are more likely to be cut off from their usual support systems.

In some reported cases, perpetrators have used the virus and safety measures as ways to control the movements and daily activities of their targets.

Statistics show that domestic violence is the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses.

Recounting a recent case she encountered, Anindya Restuviani, co-director of Hollaback Jakarta!, an advocacy group against street harassment, said: “(The woman’s) husband was threatening her with lawsuits if she dared to leave the house with her kids and expose them to the virus. She was so scared.”

As people stay off the streets, Hollaback Jakarta!, which usually only receives reports of harassment and violence in public spaces in the Indonesian capital, is also receiving domestic violence cases. Several such cases landed within the same week that the stay-at-home measures kicked in on 16 March. “That’s worrying,’” said Restuviani.

The Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice Legal Aid Institute (LBH APIK) has also seen an increase in its caseload. Its director Siti Mazumah told Eco-Business that the firm has seen a three-fold increase in referral cases from the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in the last two weeks since the work-from-home order. 

For some, homes are not safe

A similar story is playing out in other parts of the Asia Pacific, with advocacy groups in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia seeing a rise in domestic violence cases.

In Singapore, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) women’s helpline saw a 33 per cent increase in calls related to family violence in February compared to the same period last year—a contrast to national data that shows a decline in cases from 2016 to 2019.

Malaysia-based Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), the largest service provider for domestic violence survivors in the nation, has not seen an “immediate increase” in reports of domestic violence.

But Meera Samanther, its past president and current assistant treasurer, said it is expecting a spike after the government’s movement control order is lifted in April. With movement restrictions in place, it may be more dangerous for survivors to seek help as they are stuck at home with the perpetrators looking over their shoulders all day, the WAO explained.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. Statistics show that domestic violence is the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses.

Domestic violence survivors suffer a range of serious physical and mental health consequences that require urgent health responses. These can include emergency services, psychological assessments and long-term support.

During a coronavirus lockdown, individuals who are unable to work may also become more financially dependent on their partners, making it even more difficult to leave unsafe environments, said Samanther. 

Statistics also show that during a crisis, the burden of household activities and taking care of children and the ill fall disproportionately on women and girls, forcing some to leave their jobs to focus on domestic affairs.

The issue of sexism has also surfaced amid the pandemic. Just this week, Malaysia’s Women and Family Development Ministry drew flak and had to apologise for a series of “household happiness” posters that, among other things, advised women to adopt the squeaky voice of Doraemon, a cartoon robot cat from Japan, when speaking to their husbands.

Covid-19 measures hindering help

With social distancing and lockdown measures, women crisis centres with safe houses in Malaysia and Indonesia are at full capacity and are no longer accepting new cases that require accommodation for survivors.

Organisations are working around these restrictions and pivoting their services to hotlines, phone consultations and virtual sessions for those who need help. WAO has extended their hotline to 24 hours a day, and scaled up publicity for their online resources through radio, television and the internet.

To cater to the surge in cases of domestic violence, Hollaback Jakarta! has begun pooling resources with other organisations to rent temporary rooms for women and children who require emergency escape.

For a more sustainable solution, it is formalising a set of guidelines to deal with the uptick in cases along with about 40 other organisations that make up the Civil Society Coalition Against Sexual Violence.

While resources are limited during the pandemic, advocates urge survivors to continue seeking help.

Samanther emphasised that WAO has been working with the Malaysian police and welfare department to inform survivors that the police are still conducting rescues during this period of movement restrictions.

More funds needed for vulnerable communities 

UN Women has called on governments to adopt a gender lens for crisis response, one that takes into account the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, especially women—who make up 70 per cent of frontline workers in the health and social sectors and the informal economy.

As the secondary effects of the coronavirus begin to show, advocacy groups highlight the need for increased government support to protect survivors of domestic violence.

For starters, crisis shelters should be included in the list of essential services during lockdown periods. The current list covers healthcare and medical services, but does not take into account emergency accommodation for those fleeing abuse.       

As measures to arrest people who violate their stay-at-home orders are rolled out in some countries, advocates are urging the government to assure vulnerable individuals that they can leave their homes without facing charges.

Governments should provide more funding for helplines, crisis shelters, and long-term economic resilience packages for those affected, activists say. Resources should also be available to bolster law enforcers who oversee rescues and provisional domestic violence protection orders.

Some countries have already announced additional support. In the wake of a spike in coronavirus-related family abuse, Australia announced a A$150 million (US$91 million) boost in funding on 19 March to tackle domestic violence, which will be spent on telephone support services.

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