• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

“The Perfect Storm”: The Rise of Gender-Based Violence in the Age of COVID-19

By Janvi Huria, Marquette High School, Chesterfield, MO, USA

One in three women experiences sexual or physical violence at some point in their life (“A Staggering One-in-Three Women”, 2019). In the last 12 months alone, 243 million girls between the ages of 15 and 49 were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner (“Violence against Women”, n.d.). During the COVID-19 pandemic, sudden shifts in routine have made this situation a “ticking time bomb” for the exponential growth in rates of crimes against women (Campbell, 2020).

From an economic standpoint, the cost of gender-based violence before the pandemic was estimated to be up to 3.7% of a country’s GDP - more than double most countries spend on education (“Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls)”, n.d.). This cost makes up 2% of the global GDP at $1.5 trillion. Coupled with the general economic devastation from the pandemic, the cost of violence against women is expected to increase (“The Economic Costs”, n.d.).

From a healthcare perspective, violence perpetrated across gender lines is as common as injury caused by cancer, and it is a “greater cause of ill health than road accidents and malaria combined” (“A Staggering One-in-Three Women”, 2019). There are long-term physical consequences that span issues from vaginal bleeding to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections to greater risk for traumatic brain injury and chronic pain (“Health Effects of Violence”, 2017). In a study of domestic violence victims, over 50% reported musculoskeletal conditions (Alejo, 2014). The mental health consequences are equally fatal, contributing to higher rates of depression and substance abuse (“WHO | Violence”, n.d.). Moreover, the health consequences of violence even extend beyond the victim to fetuses through pregnancy and prenatal issues, including a greater likelihood of premature labor and lower infant birth weight (Huth-Bocks & Levendosky & Bogat, 2002).

Gender-based violence has already caused deep socioeconomic, political, and health consequences prior to COVID, and the pandemic has only made it worse. COVID-19’s implications on the number of hotline calls, incidences of domestic violence, and demand for emergency shelters have spread throughout the world to varying degrees. In the UK, there was a 120% increase in incidents of domestic violence during the first few months of the pandemic (“UK Domestic Abuse”, n.d.). Furthermore, a 30% increase in emergency calls of violence towards women were found in Argentina, Cyprus, and Singapore (“Gender-based Violence and COVID-19”, n.d.), and twice as high of an increase was found in the EU (“Covid-19: EU States”, n.d.). Reports by the United Nations Population Fund indicate an additional 15 million cases of intimate partner violence as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns (“Why the Increase in Domestic Violence”, n.d.).

The pandemic has created a combination of factors contributing to this rise of gender-based violence, which researchers have nicknamed “the perfect storm” or “shadow pandemic." Natural disasters and crises bring increased stress, and COVID-19 is no exception. The pandemic has led to increasing unemployment, financial concerns, and deaths, which have been correlated to physical/sexual violence by intimate partners (“Why the Increase in Domestic Violence”, n.d.). In conjunction with the isolation forcing women to spend more time with abusive partners, decreased access to understaffed support services (including shelters and police) have led to increased violence rates (“Violence Against Women and Girls”, n.d.).

The efforts to combat this rise in gender-based violence have been championed by the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization, and Human Rights Watch. In a statement by the Attorney General of the UN, Guterres explained the necessity of properly funding online services and civil society organizations to ensure the efficacy of judicial systems (even though trials are moving virtual), setup and improvement of emergency warning systems in public places, and declaration of shelters as essential services (“Make the Prevention”, n.d.). Despite these efforts, a document released by the United Nations Population Fund at the end of April 2020 reported that the pandemic may still lead to a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender-based violence and female genital mutilation by 2030. It also predicts that an additional 13 million child marriages, which would not have occurred without the pandemic, will take place between 2020 and 2030 (“Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, n.d.).

Gender-based violence has always been a human rights violation and a global health issue, and in the backdrop of COVID-19, the consequences have been multiplied. All governments need to make the prevention of these crimes a central component of their policy in addressing COVID-19, since, more often than not, the greatest threat lies in the place individuals are supposed to be the safest: their own homes.


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