The COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of human tragedies. It has also exacerbated other types of pandemics, such as violence against women. Indeed, in 2018, the Secretary General of the United Nations declared that violence against women should be recognized as a “global pandemic.”(1) This pandemic of violence continues against the backdrop of another pandemic.
It is recognized that pandemics can exacerbate gender inequalities and impact the way women receive treatment and care.(2-3) Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, government authorities and human-rights groups in many countries denounce an increase in reports of violence, as well as an increase in requests for emergency accommodation.(2-3) Measures to prevent and control infections (whether physical distancing, confinement, quarantine, curfew, business closures) may have had an impact on family dynamics through their effects on family income, social connections, well-being and mental health.
Such observations resonate with the results of a moderate-quality systematic review that was recently published.(4) This review examined the scientific literature on violence against women during periods of physical distancing and confinement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The analysis of 38 articles revealed an increase in calls to helplines and contact with services and organizations for victims of violence. That said, the review points out that the number of reports is probably underestimated. Indeed, many factors seem to hamper reporting and accessing help services. Obstacles include aggressive and controlling behaviour of the abuser, close proximity to the abuser during confinement that does not allow the victim to report, fear of being infected with COVID-19, and a disruption or reduction in social support and protection services during the pandemic. Moreover, it also seems difficult to implement interventions with friends and family members due to their fear of contracting the virus.
The review also identified four types of factors increasing women's vulnerability to violence during the pandemic:
1. individual factors (whether stress, impulsivity, anxiety, depression, mental health problems; loss of employment and income; financial difficulties; use of alcohol and other drugs ; fear of infections; feeling of uncertainty; a history of violence; or an increase in unpaid work and childcare responsibilities);
2. interpersonal factors (whether it is partner dependence; the need to spend more time near the abuser; increased controlling behaviours; or decreased social contact and support by peers);
3. community factors (limited access to social networks; restricted access to health and social services; or the availability of alcohol, drugs and weapons); and
4. societal factors (the health, economic and social crises generated by the pandemic; restrictions on movement; limited access to justice and social protection systems; social norms regarding the role of men and women; idealized representations of home and family; or the absence of policies against violence against women).
The review points out that the pandemic is forcing many victims to turn to the telephone helplines and virtual channels like websites and messaging apps to seek help. However, the review underlines the security issues for victims who seek help while their abuser is confined with them.
Health and social professionals appear to have a crucial role in detecting, identifying and reporting cases of violence. Telemedicine services have been proposed in order to play a role, but all of this must be done with the consideration of the need to ensure the privacy and security of women. For example, during virtual care sessions, it is recommended that professionals use closed questions to check women's safety, the use of colour codes or specific codes in case of danger, and offer their services on a flexible schedule to take advantage of absences of the abuser.
Violence against women is a tragic and complex phenomenon, especially since this "shadow pandemic" is unfolding against the background of a health pandemic. However, we must act proactively and not remain silent in the face of such violence.