[TW: violence against women; domestic abuse; homicide] WHO’s report shows violence against women is a ‘global public health problem,’ with shutdowns giving rise to shadow pandemic

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The horrific March 16 shooting in three spa locations in Atlanta, Georgia, took the lives of eight people, six of which were identified as women of East Asian descent. Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon C Park, Suncha Kim, Yong A Yue — these are the names of the women whose lives were senselessly curtailed by a male assailant.

While the motivation behind the violence — whether the gunman killed the victims because they were women, East Asian, sex workers, or some other reason — is still under speculation, the empirical facts are incontestable: violence against women is and can be fatal. And sadly, the atrocities that unfolded in Atlanta on Tuesday are not the first nor last incident of violence against women.

The March 16 shooting in three Atlanta spa locations took the lives of eight people, including six East Asian women (PHOTO: courtesy of Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released an analysis detailing the latest figures of gender-based violence around the world. It estimated that, globally, about 1 in 3 women — which translates to 736 million women, according to BBC — have been subjected to violence in their lifetimes. The WHO characterized such pervasive violence against women as a “major public health problem” as well as a violence against women’s human rights.

“Violence against women is a global public health problem of pandemic proportions, and it starts at an early age,” author Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno told the BBC. “The number could be much larger as fear of stigma could be a barrier to many women reporting sexual violence.”

The WHO derived its data from population-level surveys based on reports from survivors. The perpetrators of physical and/or sexual violence could be an intimate partner or non-partner, the WHO stated. However, most of the violence is intimate partner violence, and perhaps more disconcerting is how early such violence begins.

Intimate partner violence refers to behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Sexual violence is "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting. It includes rape, defined as the physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body part or object, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching and other non-contact forms".

UN Women

Violence against women in numbers

The WHO found that 1 in 4 girls and women, aged 15 to 24 years, who have been in a relationship will have already experienced intimate partner violence by the time they reach their mid-twenties.

According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, rates of violent crimes against girls and women of this age group are 42% higher than rates for women aged 25 to 34, and almost double the rates for women aged 35 to 44. The rates of spousal violence and homicide are also the highest for girls and women aged 15 to 24.

“It’s deeply disturbing that this pervasive violence by men against women not only persists unchanged, but is at its worst for young women aged 15-24 who may also be young mothers. And that was the situation before the pandemic stay-at-home orders,” Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

The WHO also found over a quarter of women aged 15 to 49 who have been in a relationship have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at least once since they were 15.

“The prevalence estimates of lifetime intimate partner violence range from 20% in the Western Pacific, 22% in high-income countries and Europe and 25% in the WHO Regions of  the Americas to 33% in the WHO African region, 31% in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region, and 33% in the WHO South-East Asia region,” the report stated.

On a global scale, 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners, and 6% of women have reported sexual assault by a non-partner, although the data on such cases is limited, the WHO found.

According to the WHO, intimate partner and sexual violence is a result of intersecting elements, including individual, family, community, and society factors.

Diagram (PHOTO: Courtesy of UN Women)

Risks for both intimate partner and sexual violence include lower levels of education; a history of exposure to child maltreatment; witnessing family violence; substance abuse; harmful masculine behaviours; and low levels of gender equality.

Violence disproportionately affects women in low- and lower-middle-income nations, the WHO stated. It estimated that 37% of women in impoverished countries have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their life. Some countries have a prevalence as high as 1 in 2.

According to the WHO, Oceania, Southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest prevalence rates of intimate partner violence among women aged 15 to 49, ranging from 33% to 51%. By contrast, the lowest rates are found in Europe, Central Asia, Eastern Asia, and South-Eastern Asia, ranging from 16% to 23%.

In Canada, some women are more at risk than others.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation found that Indigenous women are six times more likely to be killed than their non-Indigenous counterparts. They are also 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence.

The WHO, however, gave a caveat that “While the numbers reveal already alarmingly high rates of violence against women and girls, they do not reflect the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It noted that emergencies — like the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant state response to the health crisis — exacerbate violence and increase vulnerability and risks.

PHOTO: Courtesy of UN Women

What is the shadow pandemic?

In addition to the health, social, and economic impacts of the government’s management of the COVID-19 outbreak, it has also produced a phenomenon described as the “shadow pandemic.”

“During times of crisis, violence against women and girls increases,” UN Women stated in an Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW) resource document.

“Pandemics, such as COVID-19, create challenging conditions that exacerbate the risks of violence against women and girls and the challenges to implementing prevention programming in their authentic form.”

Key factors that increased women’s exposure to violence are lockdowns and disruptions to support services, the WHO stated.

“Families subject to quarantine, isolation and physical distancing coupled with increased domestic and care burdens may experience tensions, stress, anxiety and mental health problems,” according to the UN Women document.

UN Women also noted that survivors can no longer access such resources because, in some countries, resources and efforts have been reallocated to immediate COVID relief.

Moreover, most prevention programming is predicated on in-person human interaction as well as long-term dialogue and community mobilization. These programs have suffered because of physical distancing mandates, UN Women stated.

UN Women found that data and reports from the front lines showed that violence against women and girls — especially domestic — have worsened since the pandemic. There has been an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the COVID outbreak.

Outside the household, sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women continue on the streets, in public spaces, and online, UN Women stated.

PHOTO: Courtesy of UN Women

In the virtual realm, women and girls have been subjected to online violence in the form of physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking, sex trolling, and zoombombing — when a video conference call is highjacked by obscene or hateful material.

Here in Canada, Yvonne Harding of Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline told the Canadian Press that call volumes skyrocketed almost immediately after parts of the country went into lockdown in spring 2020.

The helpline received 20,334 calls between September 1 and December 31, 2020, compared to 12,352 over the same period in 2019 — nearly 8,000 more reports.

“Everything closed overnight, and our crisis lines lit up,” Harding said, describing a spectrum of different reports.

“We saw those who were feeling immediately threatened because their situation had escalated, and we saw those for whom fears were kicking in, because things were starting to change, and they were used to being able to access community supports in person that were no longer available to them.”

According to UN Women, the financial hardship induced by the government’s response to COVID-19 has fomented conflict within the family unit.

In contexts where traditional gender roles delegate men as breadwinners, “this reality can create a sense of inadequacy, uncertainty and loss of control, provoking the assertion of power, including through violence towards their partners/spouses, children or others living in the household.”

Preventing violence against women during COVID-19

“Violence – in all its forms – can have an impact on a woman’s health and well-being throughout the rest of her life – even long after the violence may have ended,” the WHO stated.

“It has impacts on society as a whole and comes with tremendous costs, impacting national budgets and overall development.”

The long-term consequences may manifest into mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders, and physically such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections.

The WHO recommends addressing the root causes of violence as its principal strategy: eliminating the systemic and economic inequalities that poison societal health in myriad ways. For example, ensuring access to education and safe work opportunities and reforming discriminatory institutions and gender norms are key steps. It also advises continued and increased support services for survivors, such as women’s organizations.

“To address violence against women, there’s an urgent need to reduce stigma around this issue, train health professionals to interview survivors with compassion, and dismantle the foundations of gender inequality,” said Garcia-Moreno.

In the same vein, UN Women suggests capitalizing on the digital landscape to create awareness and messaging to reshape longstanding social norms. It also recommends leveraging remote learning opportunities to teach the youth about healthy relationships, appropriate technology usage, life skills, and comprehensive sexuality education.

The non-profit also argued that public health services that target mental health and substance abuse should be considered essential and additional funding must be allocated for such interventions.

Governments should also provide economic and livelihood support to women and families, which is “critical to buffer against financial strain and poverty — the risk factors for abuse.” States should invest in individual and household economic and social welfare support in forms such as cash transfers, low or no-interest loans, and provision of food and essentials.

UN Women also suggests employers should communicate zero tolerance for violence of any kind and provide financial continuity for employees. Employers should also facilitate healthy outlets of coping with stress and take proactive steps to combat gender stereotypes and discrimination.

Finally, UN Women strongly urges medium and long-term prevention efforts that end violence against women, including community engagement programs.

“The very risks that drive violence against women in the first place will be amplified in the aftermath of COVID-19 with loss of income, livelihoods, potential increases in generalized crime and violence and the intensified abuse that children will have been exposed to during isolation.”

Wiki Production Code: A0719

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