Stay home is one of the most trending hashtags on social networks and it is also one of the most important measures health experts and governments propose around the world to curb the spread of the deadly virus, COVID-19. However, it is hard to convince women who live with abusive partners that home is safe when they have to experience what experts call intimate terrorism, as well as sexual or physical violence. Every day, many women are forced to choose between the devil of staying at home facing the wrath of their abusive partners and the deep sea of going out and contracting the virus. Both prospects are equally dangerous and no one should ever be compelled to make a gruesome decision like this.
Although many have been brushing off this topic as being insignificant, it is worth noting that a quick glance at figures relating to domestic violence would shock anyone in ways they can’t possibly imagine. According to a report released by the UN, a staggering 243 million women and girls, aged 15- 49, have been subject to sexual and/or physical abuse by an intimate partner in the previous twelve months only. In 2017, 87 000 were killed according to another report released in 2017. Shockingly, these figures do not include the 40% cases of domestic violence that haven’t been reported to NGOs or police forces, as the same study found out. Amid the recent measures that governments have taken, this figure is more likely to increase. In fact, France, Cyprus, and Singapore have all released reports suggesting that domestic violence cases have shot up by 30%, while law enforcement agencies in the United States have reported an increase of 35% in hotline calls or reports of domestic violence in general. With growing demands for shelter homes for domestic violence victims in Canada, Germany, Spain, and the UK, these countries have expressed their concern over a possible surge of this scourge.
If countries with laws that strictly criminalize domestic violence have witnessed a surge in domestic violence cases, we can only imagine how things would be for women who live in countries where violence against them is considered a norm, not a crime. Countries in the MENA region haven’t released any official reports or statistics on domestic violence under lockdown. But, the outcries of several activists in the MENA should give us a clear idea of how women are living through this juncture. We don’t have numbers but can infer how grim the picture is when the one examines the studies and reports on this scourge for the period before the unfolding of COVID-19. Examining figures related to Morocco, the country where I live, will give us a clear idea of how dire the situation is.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, a study released by Princeton University last year found out that at least a quarter of all married women have been physically abused by their partners in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen. While it is true that nearly half of MENA countries have been hailed in the last few years for passing laws that criminalize domestic violence, it would be naif to believe that such laws have succeeded in clamping down on the issue. In fact, Human Rights Watch asserts that the laws have failed to change the status quo for women in the MENA region. Unfortunately, Morocco is no exception to the rule. In 2019, a survey conducted by the Moroccan government found out that the rates of violence against women amount to 54% in the kingdom.
Amid these frustrating statistics and shocking reports, there is hope; Morocco has recently joined an UN-lead initiative against domestic violence under lockdown. Morocco has been successful at securing the response of 124 UN member states, while fifteen other nations have joined as well. The goal of the initiative, as outlined by the UN, is to ensure peace at home. Countries that are part of this initiative have vowed to take a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence and ensure that reporting mechanisms are in place. However, fears have not been allayed as before the implementation of the lockdown measures, domestic violence victims would usually go to the headquarters of NGOs or police stations to report abuse. Now, activists fear, with the lockdown in place, that victims of violence may not be able to report such cases. Also, those who do report need shelters that can host them, ones located far away from where they live, something difficult to manage given the current chaos that has beset the world.
The death toll related to domestic violence stood at 87000 in 2017 worldwide. Therefore, it is also a pandemic, as UN experts have called it, that governments must fight. The UN’s initiative is a belated first step and governments need to allocate more resources to stop the ongoing surge of this scourge. If this problem is not taken seriously, I fear the death toll will, god forbid, double and the number of victims will triple. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations’ sectary general, has pleaded with governments “to put women’s safety first they respond to the pandemic”. He also urged the world to “increase investment in online services and civil society organizations “ and “declare shelters as essential service”.