This article includes discussion of domestic and intimate partner violence that may be challenging for some readers.
May 19, 2022
By Christiana Obeng, Drexel University College of Medicine
- Violence against women and children (VAWG) is a public health concern especially because it is significantly underreported.
- According to the WHO, almost 736 million women – approximately 1 in 3 – are subjected to violence, especially through intimate partner violence and non-sexual partner violence.
- Most violence is perpetuated by current or former husbands or intimate partners.
- Physical confinement and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its socioeconomic impact, increased the exposure of these vulnerable women and girls to the risk factors that perpetuate IPV and non-sexual and sexual violence.
- Concerted efforts are required to bring this shadow pandemic to an end, to fulfill the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of “leaving no one behind.”
WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF THE SHADOW PANDEMIC?
It has been two years since the pandemic started, and we now have effective vaccines to prevent further spread and worse outcomes from COVID. The mortality rate from the pandemic has slowed down, businesses and the economy have gradually risen back to a seemingly well-functioning system. However, in the shadows of COVID-19, there was another pandemic arising, that unfortunately was masked by the pressing nature of the COVID pandemic. This is now termed the “Shadow Pandemic”: the increasing rates of violence against women and children since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, approximately 1 in 3 women are suffering from intimate partner violence (IPV) and non-sexual violence.1 Before the pandemic 243 million women and girls were victims of sexual and physical violence. Since the pandemic, this number has risen to 736 million women and girls.2 These statistics exclude the number of women who experienced anxiety, depression, unplanned pregnancies and exposure to STDS. Sadly, most of this violence is known to be perpetrated by the current and former intimate partners of these victims. In some countries, there was a five-fold increase in the number of calls placed to hotlines. Despite these alarming numbers, domestic violence cases are severely underreported. According to the UN, less than 40% of women who experienced domestic violence sought help, and alarmingly, less than 10% of these victims reported to the police.
HOW DID COVID-19 CONTRIBUTE TO THE SHADOW PANDEMIC?
As the COVID-19 pandemic grew, health sectors were overwhelmed, domestic violence shelters had exceeded their capacity and physical movement was limited. These factors subsequently led to the following consequences:1
- Threatened financial security and inability to afford adequate health care
- Restricted physical movement, especially in cramped living conditions in some countries
- Increased exposure to and isolation with abusers
- Reduced security due to deserted public spaces
These consequences of COVID-19, coupled with the underlying factors for intimate partner violence and sexual violence such as harmful use of alcohol, marital discord and dissatisfaction, difficulties in communicating between partners, and low levels of gender equality, intensified the rate of violence against women and girls.
WHAT WERE THE HEALTH IMPLICATIONS OF THE SHADOW PANDEMIC?
Constant exposure to violence in this vulnerable population of women and girls affected their mental and physical health Such violence led to increased rates of:4
- Physical trauma, including genital trauma, and disability
- Mental health problems such as PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicidality
- Unwanted pregnancies, abortion, HIV and other STIs, pregnancy loss and prematurity, lack of contraception and unsafe sex
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE ABOUT IT?
In 2019, the WHO and UN collaborated with ten other UN agencies to develop the RESPECT5 framework that outlines intervention strategies to prevent violence against women. The seven-letter word stands for: Relationship skill strengthened, Empowerment of women, Services ensured, Poverty reduced, Environments made safe, Child and adolescent abuse prevented, and Transformed attitudes, beliefs, and norms.
This framework has given rise to a range of interventions including couples counseling therapy workshops, financial empowerment initiatives for women in South Africa, and the Community Advocacy Project in Michigan and Illinois – which helps women survivors of IPV regain control of their lives. In places like Ecuador, cash, vouchers and food transfer programs have been implemented by the World Food Programme to reduce poverty in resource-limited areas. Safe play areas have been created by public school systems in Pakistan. Other community mobilization interventions have been created to shift the power balance between men and women in Uganda.
In 2020, United Nations developed the Spotlight Initiative, “the largest global multiyear partnership between the European Union and United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030” (United Nations, 2020).3 The initiative focuses mainly on strengthening existing agencies, policy reform, and changing societal attitude and stigma regarding domestic violence against women.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
This Shadow Pandemic is not unique to resource-poor countries or communities. It is more prevalent than is assumed. Response to mitigate the impact of VAWG is not limited to large institutions and corporations alone. If, as a health worker, family member or friend, you are concerned about someone who may be suffering from intimate partner violence, sexual or non-sexual violence, you can:7
- Listen to and believe survivors, because it takes a tremendous amount of strength for victims to reach out for help
- Call for responses and services that can help. Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline (866.723.3014)
- Teach the next generation about consent, bodily autonomy and accountability and learn from them
- Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help
- Stand against rape culture
- Hold each other accountable in workplaces and public culture
Drexel's Employee Assistance Program is available to help employees in need of support through confidential, 24/7 counseling at 888.628.4824. This is offered at no cost to benefits-eligible faculty and professional staff, their family members, and Drexel graduate students. More information is available on the Human Resources website. Students can reach out for support via Student Wellbeing.
- "The shadow pandemic: Violence against women during covid-19"
UN Women. (2021, September). Gender Equality Matters in COVID-19 Response. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19
- "Facts and figures: Ending violence against women"
UN Women. (2021, March). Ending Violence Against Women. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures
- "Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women: Report of the Secretary-General (2020)" (rep.)
United Nations. (2020). Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. United Nations. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/07/a-75-274-sg-report-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls
- "Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health impacts of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence"
WHO, LSHTM, SAMRC. WHO: Geneva, 2013
- "Respect women: Preventing violence against women"
UN Women. (2021). Publications. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2019/05/respect-women-preventing-violence-against-women
- "Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls" (rep.)
United Nations. (2020). United Nations. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/07/a-75-274-sg-report-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls
- "Take action: 10 ways you can help end violence against women, even during a pandemic"
UN Women. (2020, November 17). Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/11/compilation-take-action-to-help-end-violence-against-women