By Agata Szypulska, Office of the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights Specialist & Moana Genevey, Equinet Policy Officer
Week after week, COVID-19 reveals uncomfortable realities about the unequal societies we live in. All over the world, we have been urged to stay home, by authorities and through the #stayathome campaign. But one of the most blatant truths that we must face is that, for many women and children, home is the most dangerous place to stay. And while lockdown saves the lives of many, it also threatens the life, health and safety of highly vulnerable people.
As the issue of domestic violence revolves around power and control, frustrating situations, such as being forced to stay home, may easily lead to abusive behaviors. In lockdown, domestic abusers are also more present in the life of their victims and are increasing the surveillance and harassment they usually impose on them. Moreover, seeking help is made more difficult since the victims are less likely to be on their own.
Living in lockdown can act as a catalyser, speeding up and increasing the severity of domestic violence. Psychological violence can quickly turn into physical or sexual violence, and even lead to femicides.
All over Europe, domestic violence is rising. In France, during the first week of the lockdown, authorities reported a more than 30 percent rise in the country’s domestic violence cases. Femicides in lockdown have already been registered in several countries, including in Spain where a woman was murdered on 19 March by her husband in front of their children. Helplines calls in Cyprus have risen by 30%; while in Italy, they dropped drastically but many desperate texts and emails have been sent.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has already reacted, condemning the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” and urging all governments “to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic”. Evelyn Regner, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights has also declared: “We won’t leave Europe’s women alone”.
While at the international level voices of solidarity with domestic violence survivors are getting stronger, the national responses are very different. It is clear that some Member States are rising to the challenge by swiftly adjusting to the new circumstances.
Inspiring examples come from Spain, where shortly after going into lockdown the Ministry of Equality adopted a comprehensive Contingency Plan against gender-based violence in order to minimalize the risk of gender-based violence resulting from confinement measures. All support services were declared as “essential” and continue to function normally. Taking into account that finding help during the COVID-19 crisis could be more difficult, all necessary information on support services, including a newly launched chat service through instant messaging via WhatsApp, were widely distributed as a part of a social campaign.
More innovative emergency initiatives have also been launched in France and Belgium, including the use of code words in pharmacies for victims to seek help, or authorities requisitioning hotels as shelters for women in Brussels.
Unfortunately, not all European governments are approaching the COVID-19 crisis with such a prompt and systemic response. The Polish Commissioner for Human Rights’ statement warning the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy that this pandemic will bring a surge of domestic violence has been left without reply. As a result, this gap caused by the lack of state support was addressed through a joint effort of the Polish equality body working together with women’s rights organizations.
Building on the valuable knowledge and experience of the Center for Women’ Rights, Feminoteka Foundation and “Blue line” Nationwide Emergency Service for Victim of Domestic Violence (IPZ), the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights launched a social media campaign for persons experiencing domestic abuse called the SAFETY PLAN (#planawaryjny #epidemiaprzemocy).
Developed as a set of concrete steps to be taken by the survivors, the SAFETY PLAN focuses primarily on identifying strategies to increase their security and prepare in advance for the possibility of domestic violence. Key elements of the SAFETY PLAN include, inter alia, planning how to respond in extreme situations, creating a list of emergency telephone numbers, packing an emergency bag for the victim and any children, and being prepared to leave the house in an emergency. The SAFETY PLAN also helps victims to find the local women’s centre or shelter as it links to an interactive map of both private and public institutions around Poland. Promoted organically on social media, the SAFETY PLAN triggered a massive response from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users, including popular actors, journalists and influencers, contributing to breaking the stigma around domestic violence.
Even in light of the positive examples mentioned above there is one thing we should remember – the COVID-19 crisis is a magnifying glass for a form of violence that was already deeply rooted and widespread in Europe. This is a time for quick and decisive measures to avoid a worst-case scenario for many potential victims of domestic violence. When lockdown measures are lifted in the EU, other crucial measures must be taken to substantially address this dramatic issue. First of all, it is essential that all EU Member States ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence while reminding and pushing the EU to do the same. The Istanbul Convention is a comprehensive international document which binds States to set-up key measures against domestic violence. Second of all, increasing funding for shelters and NGOs assisting victims should be made a priority by governments all over the EU, as well as providing relevant training for all law enforcement authorities and medical staff.
Equality bodies can play an important role in this struggle. They are expert institutions that can provide training to medical staff, law enforcement and legal professionals. They can provide expert advice to assist policy-makers in tackling this long-lasting epidemic, through policy recommendations and data collection. They can conduct awareness-raising campaigns and of course, they can provide direct assistance to victims. To achieve all this, it is important to ensure that the mandate of all European equality bodies allows them to work on domestic violence issues and that their expertise and resources allow them to do so successfully.
Home is not always a safe place. For victims of domestic violence, life was already unsafe before the COVID-19 outbreak, and it will remain unsafe when we will return to “normal”. We should not forget them.