Op-Ed

Choosing between the coronavirus and violence

By Bonita Meyersfeld 24 March 2020

Are symbolic gestures enough? Should we not be doing more to combat gender-based violence, asks the writer. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

The call for isolation in one’s home is an undeniable imperative. However, there is a consequence of self-isolating that is as dangerous as the virus, and that is domestic violence.

For many people, it is inside the home that they are most at risk. We are aware of the staggering statistics of violence against women, committed predominantly by men against women and children.

It is in the home that women and children are most likely to endure violence at the hands of those with whom they live. For women, living with a man is one of the most dangerous experiences and it is unlikely that the pandemic will change this. In fact, in many ways, it may exacerbate it. 

People are experiencing higher levels of anxiety because of the uncertainty of the course this virus will take. We are uncertain about our jobs and whether we will have an income. We are in contained environments, deprived of the usual ways in which we can expend energy. Levels of frustration are soaring, creating volatility and anger. Self-isolation, therefore, has the potential to create a perfect storm in which violence against women and children may escalate.

One of the most important ways women survives gender-based violence is to escape the home. Now the virus demands that they do not leave it. Outside their home, they face the virus. Inside their home they face violence. With the plea to self-isolate, what happens to those who are isolated with the person who hurts them?

The reality is that it is unlikely that victims of intimate partner violence can escape the home. However, that does not mean that there is nothing we can do. There are three steps that we can take as a community.

The first is to check-in. We can, and should, reach out to people who we know or suspect are being hurt in their homes. We can, and should, call them daily. You do not need to discuss the violence; just ask them how they are. Why is this helpful? This is a form of intervention that reminds the victim that there are people who care. It also reminds abusers that there are people who are watching, albeit remotely. Will this stop the violence? In some circumstances, it may not but there’s a chance that it might. And it is that chance that demands the daily phone call.

The second step is to listen. If we hear crying or shouting from our neighbour’s home, do not hesitate to call the police. Often we are reluctant to do so. We think someone else will call or we believe that the victim herself will call for help if she needs it. But if we all think someone else will call the police, then no one will call. Be the person to call. And if you’re wrong about the situation and there is, in fact, no violence, physical or emotional, you’ve caused no harm. But if you’re right, you may save someone from the trauma of enduring further violence. And again, it shows the abuser that he is being watched.

Finally, if you know of a person or a child that is being abused, help them find another place to stay. This may be in your own home if you have space. If not, find out if shelters are operational and, if you have the means, offer to donate money to the shelters so they can continue to operate.

None of these steps is a silver bullet that will protect women and children from domestic violence and abuse. They are, however, small but potentially powerful interventions that will remind victims that we collectively care; and remind perpetrators that we collectively are watching. DM

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