As the implementation of movement restriction measures disrupts our daily lives, governments are compelled to respond to the high demand for support as domestic violence cases soar in a short period of time. With such measures predicted to last for weeks and even months to come, the urgency to address this issue is unprecedented.

We need to acknowledge that this problem is definitely not a conjuration of fantasy. UN Women, World Health Organization (WHO) and various other international and local organisations have repeatedly raised concerns to highlight and stress the importance of the exacerbation of gender inequality issues, such as gender-based violence, during this trying time.

The correlation between the rise in domestic violence and times of crisis is not new. Evidence has shown that gender-based violence escalate in the wake of emergencies, crisis and conflict. Past health crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, have highlighted the unique challenges and vulnerabilities women and girls face. During such difficult times, gender inequalities unfortunately compound and
are amplified.

During China’s COVID-19 lockdown, reports of domestic violence (which includes physical, psychological, sexual or economic mistreatment of a family member) nearly doubled in the Hubei province, according to a Chinese non-profit organisation based in Jingzhou.

The West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 also confirmed how epidemics leave women vulnerable to violence, as incidences of rape rose drastically. Similarly, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, studies recorded a 98 percent increase in physical victimisation. A key reason behind the rise in violence, among others, is the heighten stress in households given the instability and financial strains.

In more extreme cases, domestic violence may lead to fatalities as in France and Turkey, where women have been reported to suffer injuries at the hands of their partners during quarantine.

Women are also less likely to report violence during quarantine. The victims would not have the option to seek intervention or help with an abuser being constantly present. Where they would ordinarily seek an external intervention when the abuser is not present, such as in Bangladesh during seasonal migration periods, it is now less plausible as lockdowns keep everyone at home. Lockdowns also complicate the efforts of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide support and help to victims, especially in regards to seeking shelter.

In an effort to curb the rise of women’s vulnerabilities during this pandemic, the leadership and meaningful participation of a gendered lens need to be strengthened. The WHO has published an info sheet to help governments guide and assist communities, including ways to mitigate the rise of domestic violence during quarantine.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Women and Family Development has maintained its hotline, Talian Kasih, which has seen an increased traffic by 57 percent since the beginning of the Movement Control Order (MCO). The calls are varied from individuals seeking financial assistance to reporting gender-based violence and elderly as well as child neglect.

To mitigate the rise of domestic violence, the response must be a multilayered one. It involves not just the government and ministries, including law enforcement agencies and medical officers, but communities as well – civil societies, family, friends and community efforts are equally needed. It is without a doubt that governments worldwide are stretched thin in coping with the onset of repercussions that come from curbing COVID-19. However, some nations have adapted to their surroundings and have provided good examples for Malaysia to consider.

Firstly, communities and governments have become innovative in reaching out to victims. In France and Spain, victims are visiting pharmacies to seek help by using a codeword when reporting domestic abuse. This follows the French government’s recognition and response towards the rising numbers of domestic violence in the country, as France records a staggering 32 percent rise in one week of quarantine alone. On top of that, France has also recorded two deaths due to domestic violence since the lockdown began on 17 March. Acknowledging the difficulty for women to reach out for help during quarantine, France’s Gender Equality Minister has made support systems more easily accessible for women.

Another innovative incentive France has done is to have pop- up counselling centres available in grocery stores to advice victims or those in contact with a victim. This would also make it easier for victims to seek help and support in their situation without the presence of the abuser, as it has been previously mentioned that quarantine has made it harder for victims to report cases.

Secondly, governments can work with NGOs that already work on domestic violence to help curb the predicted rise of domestic abuse through financial support. The Canadian government has allocated up to C$2.7 million to help support victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes by pegging the organisations that support them nationwide to remain in operation. This support would include aggressively raising awareness to women’s vulnerabilities during quarantine.

Meanwhile, France has allocated up to €1 million to fund anti- domestic abuse organisations to help them respond to the increasing demand for services. This includes subsidising up to 20,000 nights of hotel accommodation to provide victims with shelter away from their abusers.

This is a solution Malaysia should consider, given the limited supply of women’s shelter homes in the country. Even without the rise of domestic abuse cases during the MCO, Malaysia’s supply of shelter homes does not meet the standard requirements set by the Council of Europe – a minimal standard of one family place per 10,000 inhabitants. Data published by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) in 2019 revealed that Malaysia’s capacity is at one family shelter per 725,384 inhabitants, a staggering disparity in meeting the minimal standards. With the MCO, the demand may surpass the supply and strain the availability of shelter for victims who need it the most.

Thirdly, the community can rise up to the occasion by providing a digital alternative to connect victims to support systems. In New Zealand, the NGO “Women’s Refuge” utilises a “shielded” website that

allows private access to information on domestic abuse and support. The benefit is that visits to the website will not show up in the browser’s history to protect victims from being placed in vulnerable positions. The organisation has encouraged the use of this website – which can be found in the form of a shield button appearing in various New Zealand-based websites like online stores. This shows how small businesses are able to also support the cause digitally, especially when a victim’s ability to actively seek help through phone calls or visits to hospital crisis centres and police stations is limited.

Thus, curbing the anticipated rise in domestic violence and providing support to victims is a multilayered effort in which different actors can assist .

While much of the effort can be done by the government for a bigger knock-on effect in the community, grassroots and civil society efforts are equally as important to mitigate the rise of violence.

It is important that Malaysians are aware of the repercussions of an extended MCO in order to reach out to victims so they understand better and are able to seek help. However, efforts should start with the Ministry of Women and Family Development by encouraging other actors to initiate community-based efforts as well as to coordinate them.

We must remember that curbing domestic violence is not the responsibility of one person – it is the responsibility of all.

A version of this article first appeared in The Star on 29 March 2020

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