Dafina Gercheva: COVID-19 pandemic puts spotlight on domestic violence

June 10, 2020

A shelter for women who have experienced domestic violence was opened on Feb. 7, 2018, in Sloviansk, a Donetsk Oblast city of 111,000 people located 665 kilometers east of Kyiv. Photo by © Maks Levin \ UNFPA

Originally published in Kyiv Post on 9 June 2020

The pandemic of the COVID-19 disease has exacerbated a range of complex social and economic challenges in societies across the world – the problems of gender and wealth inequality, in particular, have been thrown into the spotlight.

In addition, the lockdowns that many countries have adopted as a measure to slow the transmission of the disease have made worse another pre-existing pandemic – domestic violence. The United Nations Population Fund recently reported a 20 percent rise in what it calls intimate partner violence around the world during the three months of quarantine. The report predicts at least 15 million additional such cases will occur as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. This shadow pandemic is another layer of hell for the millions of girls and women who are sheltering-in-place with their abusers, far from the eyes of relatives or local authorities.

Ukraine, which quickly imposed strict quarantine measures shortly after the coronavirus pandemic reached the country in early March, has not been an exception: the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that the number of calls to the national hotline established to help people affected by domestic violence has doubled since the lockdown began. According to the figures released by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the number of criminal charges for domestic violence has also nearly doubled in recent months. In May 2020, the number of criminal charges for domestic violence was 1,511, whereas in May 2019 it was 795. These figures of course do not reflect the number of cases that go unreported for fear of retaliation.

According to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2019, only 7 percent of the women in Ukraine who experienced violence by their current partner reported it to the police. The police and judicial system often fail to react to the problem, reflecting the all-too-common attitudes in Ukrainian society that domestic abuse is “a private, family matter” and not the responsibility of the authorities, and that people subjected to domestic violence somehow “provoked” the abuses.

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, the United Nations Development Programme and its partners in Ukraine were actively addressing the problem of gender-based violence and working to develop innovative solutions. For example, in the city of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine, the UNDP, which is leading the implementation of the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme in close partnership and collaboration with UN Women, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNFPA, set up a women’s shelter with financial assistance from the European Union. The facility is much more than a safe place for women who have suffered from various forms of gender-based violence; there they receive the psychological, social and legal support they need to restore their own inner strengths and make decisions about their future lives.

In another initiative, the Donbas SOS NGO upgraded a mobile app called “Your Rights” – a universal legal guide for people affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as for people who have suffered from sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking. The app was developed under the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ukraine, and with funding from the European Union, the Netherlands, and Norway. Experts from nongovernmental organizations, activists, internally displaced persons (IDPs), journalists, and government officials, also took part in developing the app.

During the pandemic, UNDP continues to support the initiatives which address the domestic violence issue in the country, including those to help women and girls in rural and remote areas to access information on social protection. For example, the Ukrainian Women Lawyers’ Association “JurFem”, in partnership with UNDP, is conducting an assessment into the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls, focusing on gender-based violence among other things.

Tipping point

As Ukrainian human rights defender and UNDP Tolerance Envoy Larysa Denysenko pointed out in a recent blog, Ukraine can tap into the best practices around the world to help break such attitudes. Abuse hotlines and helplines are a vital first line of defense and should be up and running at all times. Women who are abused need to realize they are not alone – they just need to know how to reach out. Innovative technologies, such as an online help service with a geolocation function that is used in Spain, could be replicated in Ukraine as well. And more shelters and safe spaces for women during the quarantine period are needed to give people the option of escaping their abuser if they have to.

Experts  have noted that domestic violence increases in times of emergency, natural disaster or outbreaks of disease.  Thus, as Ukraine emerges from quarantine, there should be a decline to the “old normal.” But even as the threat of COVID-19 retreats, we must not let the problem of domestic and gender-based violence slip off the radar. The old normal was and is unacceptable.

Ukraine seems to be on the right track overall, adopting in 2017 a new law that criminalized domestic violence. Police in some cities have set up domestic violence response units.  Still, at the national level, the Government could send a powerful signal to its own population and to the other countries of the world by ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (a.k.a. the Istanbul Convention), as the United Nations recently called for it to do.

The pandemic of the COVID-19 disease has set back human development in the world, damaged economies, exacerbated social problems, and caused tensions in societies. But by laying bare social and economic inequalities, and problems like domestic abuse, it has also given us a unique and sobering opportunity to take stock of the state of the societies in which we live. For many, the time of the pandemic of COVID-19 will be remembered as a key point in their lives. We must work to make sure that it is also remembered as a tipping point, from which we emerged with fresh resolve to make our world better, greener, fairer, and safer for all, with no one left behind, or alone.