As COVID-19 spread across the globe, it was closely followed by various quarantine and lockdown policies. However, while stay at home orders may be necessary to keep people safe from the virus, they may also inadvertently put others in greater danger from other deadly risks—such as the danger of domestic and gender-based violence. As UN Secretary General António Guterres noted in early April, following his appeal for a global ceasefire to focus on addressing the pandemic: “Violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes…We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.”
Higher levels of social and economic stresses due to the pandemic combined with restricted mobility outside of the home and reduced access to services have created a pressure cooker for potential abuse. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where gender-based violence was already widespread prior to the pandemic and where stringent stay at home orders have been prolonged, this potential is particularly concerning.
While the evidence on the impact of the pandemic on domestic and gender-based violence is not easily gathered, early research suggests that overall patterns of abuse are increasing (see for example, a rapid assessment conducted by UN Women, and June and September roundups of evidence from the Center of Global Development).
It is difficult to know for certain how patterns of abuse have been changing, however, as the available data often do not tell the full story. While data from sources such as police reports, helplines, health centers, and shelters can help to provide general insight—these measures are unlikely to reflect the true situation, as victims of violence often do not report incidents due to reasons such as shame, stigma, or fear of retaliation.
Moreover, underreporting may be an even graver issue in the context of the pandemic, as seeking help in person may be limited due to mobility restrictions and fear of contagion and telephone or internet reporting may be limited as victims may have fewer opportunities to secretly reach out if they are confined at home with their abuser.
In order to gather a regional picture on how gender-based and domestic violence trends may be changing in LAC countries in the wake of the pandemic, this #GraphForThought collated monthly 2019 and 2020 data on call volume to helplines in Argentina (Línea 137 in Buenos Aires and Línea 144), Brazil (Ligue 180), Colombia (Línea 155), Dominican Republic (Línea Mujer 212), Guatemala (Línea 1572), Mexico (Línea Mujeres in Mexico City), Paraguay (Línea 137), and Peru (Línea 100 and Chat 100).
While each helpline is unique in the services it offers (a brief description of each helpline is included in the graph), all helplines broadly support victims of gender-based or domestic violence. The grey line shows monthly call volume in 2019 and the dark red line shows the volume in 2020. The dotted vertical line is for the month of March, when quarantine measures began to take hold across LAC countries.
As we can see in the graph, in all countries (except for the Dominican Republic) call volume to helplines appears to increase post-quarantine. It is important to note that the decrease in calls observed in the Dominican Republic may not actually imply a decrease in cases of violence—for the reasons stated above regarding constraints to reporting during COVID-19. In all countries with increased call volume, the call volume remains higher in 2020 than in 2019 for all months with available data—except in Guatemala, where the call volume returns to 2019 levels or below in the months of July and August.
The general trends shown here of increased domestic and gender-based violence following COVID-19 quarantines are supported by emerging evidence from studies done using helpline data for several countries in the region. For example, using helpline data from Línea 137 in Buenos Aires, Perez-Vincent and Carreras (2020) find a significant increase of 32% in helpline calls following the introduction of mobility restrictions, and evidence of substitution in reporting channels (police calls to the helpline fell by 62% while direct victim calls increased by 127%); using helpline data from Línea 100 in Peru, Agüero (2020) finds a significant increase of 48% in helpline calls between April and July 2020, with effects increasing over time; and using helpline data from Línea Mujeres in Mexico City, Silverio-Murillo and de la Miyar (2020) find an overall null effect of the lockdown on calls regarding interpersonal violence—but with an increase in calls for psychological services and a decrease in calls for legal services.
Moreover, emerging evidence from Infosegura (which gathers data on citizen security in Central American countries) from the first trimester of 2020 suggests increased levels of gender-based violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. While crime statistics from the second trimester of 2020 in Chile suggest a reduction in reporting of domestic violence to police (compared to the same period in 2019), this may only be indicative of reduced reporting through this channel, rather than actual reductions in violence.
In order to support victims of domestic and gender-based violence in the context of COVID-19, UNDP has outlined a broad range of approaches that governments should consider integrating into their national responses to the pandemic and how international partners can support in these efforts. Looking at the actual policy responses taken in the region (as collected by UNDP and UN Women’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker) we see that in the LAC region, 177 measures in 29 countries have been instituted related to addressing violence against women in the context of the pandemic.
The most common types of measures are those aimed at strengthening services (64% of measures) and those aimed at awareness-raising and campaigns (23% of measures). Examples of measures to strengthen services include measures related to helplines and other reporting mechanisms (for example, in Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, women can report violence and seek help in pharmacies, usually using a key word that alerts pharmacy staff of the situation), police and judicial responses (for example, Costa Rica has strengthened patrolling and home visits in areas where situations of violence have been previously registered and Barbados has introduced virtual courts for urgent cases, which include cases of violence against women and girls), coordinated services (for example, in Panama, the Health Minister, prosecutor’s office, police, and judiciary are all part of an intersectoral group created by the Minister of Social Development to respond to violence against women during the COVID-19 emergency), shelters (for example in Argentina, shelters for survivors were identified as essential services to ensure their continued functioning ), and continued provision of psychosocial support (for example, in El Salvador, an emergency psychological support center was established).
Examples of awareness-raising and campaigns include efforts in Brazil (Para algumas famílias, o isolamento está sendo ainda mais difícil/For some families, isolation has been even harder), Ecuador (#MujerEcuadorTeAcompaña/#WomenEcuadorIsWithYou), and Peru (Mascarillas Violetas/Violet Masks).
While there is no single nor simple solution to combatting the “shadow pandemic” of domestic and gender-based violence, it is clear that responses to COVID-19 must integrate a gender lens if they are to effectively meet the objective of promoting the safety of all citizens.