Coronavirus: Op-Ed

What happens when the home is not safe?

By Kerryn Rehse and Tarisai Mchuchu-MacMillan 19 March 2020

Tens of thousands protest outside Parliament against gender-based violence in September 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

Home is where protection from Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, is at. However, this is only true for those who have homes that are free of violence and abuse.

South Africa’s domestic violence rates are notoriously high. Many women and children are exposed to emotional, physical and financial violence and abuse regularly. Now, as the world attempts to slow the spread of Covid-19, authorities have introduced the concept of “social distancing” which calls upon people to maintain a degree of physical distance. The optimal form of social distancing requires people to be at home. What happens when home is not safe?

 In their 2018 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) declared home to be the most dangerous place for women, with the majority of female homicide victims globally being killed by intimate partners or family. Globally, in 2017, 87,000 women were intentionally killed, more than half (58%) were killed by intimate partners or family members, while on the African continent more than two-thirds (69%) of women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by an intimate partner or family member.

 In South Africa, it is estimated that one in two women experience violence perpetrated by an intimate partner and three women are intentionally killed by their intimate partners each day. In the context of increasing calls for a countrywide lockdown, we must consider that home is not safe for many women and children.

 A complete lockdown means the closing of schools, universities, public spaces, local businesses and necessitates limitations on interactions with neighbours, friends, social groups and even with family members. For a woman experiencing domestic violence, this is her every fear realised. As the isolation is further entrenched, a woman’s window of opportunity to reach out, to seek help, to remove herself and her children from the home closes. Words like “claustrophobia”  and “suffocation” also come to mind when one considers the toxic proximity safety from this virus requires. 

 One cannot escape the global government, UN agencies and media attention to the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus is discussed everywhere, in homes, schools, the workplace, in neighbourhoods. It has led to panic-buying and stockpiling of food goods and toilet paper. The pandemic continues to contribute to the cancellation of large-scale global events, and most recently, this week, the announcement of countrywide lockdowns in many countries in the global north.

 The President, in his address to the nation on Sunday, 15 March, outlined the measures that the government will take towards containing the spread of the virus. These include a travel ban, the closing of ports of entries, and the cessation of school activities. The call for countrywide lockdowns and limitations placed on interpersonal contact to prevent the further spread of the virus is understood, and the perceived necessity of such measures can be appreciated. As of  17 March 2020, South Africa has reported 116 confirmed positive cases of Covid-19. Government’s response is appropriate and we all have to play our part to adhere to these measures.

 A collective culture is growing in the face of this challenge. People are offering to carry out errands for the elderly, the ill and the vulnerable, many are heeding calls to support small, local businesses so as to cushion the devastating effect this virus and the national and global response will have on our local and national economy. But what about gender-based violence? What about domestic and intimate partner violence?

 Women who are victims of intimate partner, domestic violence, remain on lockdown, isolated from the very support systems they need. Children in these households will have increased exposure with the closure of schools. Where is the collective culture in response to the epidemic that is domestic and intimate partner violence?

 Non-governmental and community-based organisations that provide essential first response services to victims of gender-based violence have to continue their work even in these precarious times. There is no option for our community workers to work from home because those they serve have no safe spaces and require access to much-needed services such as psycho-social support and pathways to accessing justice for their own protection. These are essential services in the public health and social services model. It is not the economy of rands and cents as many of us are calculating; it is the economy of humanity that we are faced with on a daily basis. Amidst the social distancing let’s not forget those who are most vulnerable and who have no safe alternatives.

 Hopefully, in a few months’ time, the virus will be contained, a vaccine will be widely available, travel bans will be lifted, lockdowns lifted and economies will start the slow and long road to recovery. If only this were so for the women and children who live in daily fear of the violence perpetrated against them. MC

 Kerryn Rehse is the  Advocacy, Policy and Research Officer at MOSAIC Training, Service and Healing Centre for Women. Adv Tarisai Mchuchu-MacMillan is the  Executive Director.

 MOSAIC has been a first-line responder to domestic and intimate partner violence in the Western Cape province since 1993. MOSAIC continues to provide access to justice and psychosocial services to survivors of domestic violence, while amplifying awareness-raising and prevention activities with women and girls and men and boys towards eradicating gender-based violence.

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