Fighting a shadow pandemic

A jump in domestic violence incidents amid the virus outbreak showcases policy failures

Illustration © Piyamas Dulmunsumphun / 123rf.com

Working from home during the height of Covid-19 was hell on earth for Bella*, a mother of two. Her abusive and alcoholic husband, whom she had been married to for a decade, had begun to physically and sexually violate her more now that she was working from home. The abuse often took place in front of the children, who were trying to keep up with schoolwork through remote learning.

The abuse had become so severe that after an unprovoked altercation in the bedroom -- which left Bella with a broken nose -- paramedics were called by neighbours to resuscitate her after they had been alerted by the couple's nine-year-old son who had found her on the bathroom floor with her nightgown drenched in blood.

After recovering from her injuries, Bella opted to return to her abusive husband instead of going to a social welfare shelter because she feared getting infected with Covid-19.

Bella's case is just one among many which demonstrates the rise in domestic violence incidents amid the coronavirus outbreak. Sadly, this is taking place not only in Thailand but across the globe. As a result of this unfortunate phenomenon, the 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights recently organised a discussion on the topic of "Sexual and gender-based violence during Covid-19 in Asia and the Pacific regions".

At the event, panellists from Fiji, Tonga, Cambodia and Thailand shared how violence against women and children -- already a prevalent social problem in their individual communities -- had doubled in terms of reported cases amid the pandemic.

While stats regarding the surge in violence against women and children are still scarce, news reports support the belief that there has been a significant increase in domestic violence as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, reports also seem to suggest that there has been a reduction in the number of survivors seeking support due to a combination of lockdown measures and/or women not opting to avail of health services due to fear of infection.

A specialist for the UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office for Ending Violence Against Women and Girls Programme, Abigail Erikson, stated that recent statistics show that last year alone, 243 million women and girls between 15 to 49 worldwide were subjected to sexual and physical violence by their intimate partner.

The Pacific island countries have some of the highest recorded rates of sexual and gender-based violence, with nearly two out of three (67%) women experiencing sexual or physical violence by their partner. The violence is recurrent and severe and impacts women, girls, children, families and local communities at large.

Public health measures adopted to fight the pandemic such as physical distancing and lockdown, she added, have confined people within their homes and added fuel to the fire.

"There has been an increase in calls to the national helpline numbers with 50% of women reporting a correlation between violence and some Covid-19 containment measure," Erikson said. "Meanwhile, service providers have also reported that sexual and gender-based violence survivors who were already receiving support services have been experiencing more severe and more frequent violence.

"If we do not address the central drivers of gender inequality, violence and discrimination, then we are not going to deliver on the sustainable development goals [SDGs]. The money, resources and the political will that need to be put into addressing this issue should be unveiled against the backdrop of the pandemic and galvanise governments and civil society to direct all their efforts and resources into addressing all forms of such practices. If this happens, it would be a positive outcome of the pandemic."

Matcha Phorn-In, an ethnic minority lesbian feminist and founder of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project in Thailand, which works with marginalised and vulnerable members of society, remarked that due to increased travel restrictions, lockdown and home-­quarantine measures caused by Covid-19, there has been a rise in cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse, and gender-based violence in families she works with.

The human rights defender said marginalised communities were already residing in crisis-like situations even prior to the pandemic. She described how a countless number of girls and women face poverty, discrimination and violation based on their ethnicity, stateless status, gender or sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, the LGBTI community is also scared to seek public healthcare and/or other government services because homophobia and sexual discrimination hugely impacts their access to services.

When Covid-19 struck, marginalised communities were hit the hardest, according to the executive director of the non-profit organisation. They ran out of food and were out of a job before others.

Adding further insult to injury for the stateless and undocumented migrant workers and refugees living in Thailand without ID cards was that government aid during the pandemic was not available to them. This heightened their vulnerabilities.

Matcha has made calls for safe access to abortion for all women; comprehensive sexual education in schools; legalisation of sex work; and laws to protect the rights of migrant workers, stateless people, sex workers and the LGBTI community.

"We need to change the system which fundamentally oppresses women," she said. "This pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to stall progress made against sexual and gender-based violence. We require more engagement of women at the policy-making level and our government must listen to their voices to ensure an effective response to sexual and gender-based violence.

"In a culture such as ours which normalises domestic violence, the current Covid-19 measures have created an environment where women and children can become victims of abuse at the hands of a spouse or guardian more frequently because of the circumstances they are in."

While Thailand has not kept any statistics on this matter, social agencies have seen a drastic increase, Matcha explained.

"At recent engagements agencies such as the OSCC -- One Stop Crisis Center, or Social Help Center -- reported that the cases of domestic violence had doubled compared to the same time last year, while the Samaritans Thailand, a hotline for suicide prevention, have gone on record to say that they have found a three-fold increase in the number of callers, most of whom expressed concern over financial matters brought on due to Covid-19."

As for Cambodia, Dr Chivorn Var, executive director of the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), said that confinement is likely to increase risks of partner violence as well as reduce access to regular lifesaving sexual and gender-based violence services.

He said schools and most businesses in Cambodia had closed due to Covid-19 although it was not mandatory to stay at home.

"In Cambodia, we have laws, policies and programmes of action related to sexual and gender-based violence. We have to improve their implementation at the ground level through intersectoral coordination at the national and sub-national level. There is also a need to increase resources for continuity of care and lifesaving support and collection of age-specific data on gender issues."

Meanwhile, Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, director of the Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC), said that in Tonga, over 80% of sexual violence incidents, including child sexual abuse as well as rape and incest, happen within homes.

"Twenty-five percent of Tongan women have experienced either physical or sexual violence. But the majority of the support and response services -- like legal aid, safe houses or shelter homes, counselling services, sexual and reproductive health services -- for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are on the main island. Women and children living in the five outer Tongan islands do not have direct access to these services."

Matcha added that addressing domestic and gender-based violence at its root is a must because, for one, the situation has reached a crisis point, with Thailand still lagging behind when it comes to making any tangible progress. She believes one of the reasons why men in general feel entitled to physically and sexually abusing women and children in Thailand is because of the mindset they have developed that the consequences of their actions will not get them into trouble.

"Thailand is a male-dominated society. The fact that we don't have a female representative to actually push our cause, both prior to Covid-19 and even now, makes the situation more dire for victims of abuse, especially with the implementation of work from home and quarantine restrictions that have exacerbated an already bad situation.

"We need to have the media work harder on campaigning against domestic violence and to raise awareness about it as a form of gross injustice and as a criminal act."


*Not her real name