Content/Trigger warning: This piece contains discussions of rape, sexual and physical violence, abuse, etc.
While the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the world causing the ongoing medical, financial, and economic crises, another pandemic taking place hidden beneath its shadows—silent, but no less deadly—is the Shadow Pandemic.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, reports have shown that all kinds of violence, especially domestic violence, against women and girls have increased. According to UN Women, “As Covid-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached capacity.”¹
Due to forced confinement with abusive family members under these stressful circumstances, domestic violence has become more frequent and more severe.
In Bangladesh, the number of cases of abuse, rape, and murder has increased since the lockdown started. It is not too far-fetched to assume that the reported cases contribute only to a small percentage of the actual number of such cases taking place all over the country. Restricted movement due to the lockdown renders victims helpless against their attackers, forcing them to stay silent and not seek help. Many women, particularly in rural areas, are likely to have little or no access to telephones or the internet.
In the past year, around 243 million girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced sexual and/or physical violence from their intimate partners.² Domestic violence is a human rights violation, and the government needs to prioritise the cases of the increasing number of women falling victims to domestic abuse.
Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) has been conducting surveys through telephone since April to collect information about domestic violence. The results produced paint a clear and horrific image of the state of domestic abuse in Bangladesh, also providing evidence of an increase in child abuse and child marriage.³
According to the survey done across 53 districts during the month of June, it was found that of 57,704 women and children, 9,844 women and 2,896 children have been victims of violence. Among them, 20% of the children and 39% of the women faced violence for the first time.
Of the women who faced domestic violence in June, 47% faced mental and emotional abuse, 33% faced financial abuse, 18% faced physical abuse, and 2% faced sexual abuse.
Though domestic violence is the most prominent form of violence that has increased in Bangladesh, women and children, particularly those from poor families, are constantly facing an increasing amount of violence in workplaces. Lower middle-income families have encountered a stark decline in their income after workplaces shut down, and since factories were opened in June, families desperate for money started sending their children to work. Factory owners grasped at the opportunity to employ them with incriminatingly low wages. According to a report by MJF, this resulted in an increase in violence against children by up to a shocking 137%. Of the victims, 74% are girls.
Child marriage has increased drastically during the lockdown period. A total of 462 child marriages occurred in June, of which 207 were prevented by local NGOs. This is what MJF said about the issue and why it has increased due to the pandemic:
“It was found by the survey that parents were involved in most cases of this violation of child rights, while in some cases grandparents, local elites, and close relatives were responsible for the child marriages. Parents and guardians of the victims suggested that reducing family burden during the lockdown period had been the major reason for getting their offspring married at a minor age. Poverty, social insecurity, and social pressure had been amongst other reasons.”
Other than violence at home and violence in the workplace, there has been an increase in the numbers of rape and attempted rape, kidnapping, and murder. Deserted streets due to the lockdown have resulted in increased sexual harassment of women in public places. There have also been reports of sexual harassment while receiving food and other support.
A research paper published by the Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) lists some of the incidents of violence against women that have taken place in Bangladesh during the lockdown period:
“On 10 May, a woman was murdered by her husband and in-laws for dowry, in Lalmonirhat. The husband and his family members are currently on the run as police continue the search. In Sylhet, a woman was murdered with an axe by her husband during an argument on 11 May. In Chandpur, a woman was stabbed to death by her husband on 15 May. Her mother and brother were stabbed as well when they came to rescue. The woman died on the spot while her mother passed away after being taken to the hospital. The husband has been arrested. In Jaipurhat district, a woman was tied to a tree and tortured by her husband in front of her in-laws on 27 May. She was rescued by neighbours and taken to the hospital. The perpetrator and his brother have been arrested. In Noakhali, a woman’s body was found hanging from a tree and her daughter’s body was found in a nearby pond on 29 May. The husband has been missing since the incident.”⁴
Numerous such reports can be found in news articles in Bangladesh throughout the lockdown period. This proceeds to beg the question of how many incidents of violence go unreported.
While conducting the telephone survey, MJF observed the many limitations and challenges that deterred women from providing complete and reliable information regarding their abusers. Most women felt discomfort talking over the phone, and those who did had the risk of being interrupted by family members. It was difficult to reach women in remote locations (particularly in hilly areas), which meant a large proportion of women had to be excluded from the survey. Moreover, a large number of women refused to speak against the perpetrators, either because of social stigma shaming them into silence or because of their family members threatening them.
The women who were given the opportunity to speak up against their perpetrators were, indeed, the fortunate ones. Needless to say, there are yet many women who are being forced to tolerate abuse behind closed doors and do not have the means or opportunity to seek help. According to the Mobile Gender Gap Report published in 2019, 58% of adult women use mobile phones while only 13% have access to the internet, which is strikingly low compared to adult men, for whom the figures are 86% and 30% respectively. This situation worsened as a result of businesses going online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Women in lower-income families are, thus, less likely to be able to call for help. Furthermore, due to social distancing, women are unable to leave the house and report to the police against their abusers.⁵
Even if women do have the opportunities to seek help, there are various other circumstances that prevent them from doing so. The most prominent one is, of course, the social stigma surrounding abuse. Many women, as MJF has observed during their survey, do not consider domestic abuse to be abuse. The normalisation of abuse is at such extreme levels in Bangladesh that women are led to believe that it is normal to be abused by their husbands and in-laws. The lack of education and awareness about domestic violence keeps women from reaching out for help.
Women from poor families tend to expect aid in the form of food, shelter, livelihood, money, relief, etc. rather than protection from their abusers. Now, due to the financial and health crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, they are far less likely to stand up for themselves when their families are under the risk of starvation or death. As the number of perpetrators increases during the lockdown, so decreases the chances of victims trying to seek help, further worsening the already iniquitous situation.
While victims having fewer opportunities to report their abusers may be a reason for the increasing frequency and severity of domestic violence, there are other factors that come into play. Social distancing allows abusers to socially isolate their victims from their friends and family, and assert control over their lives. Regarding this issue, Psychology Today writes:
“Severe and persistent isolation can cause victims to rely solely on their abusers to define a sense of reality, which feeds into a cycle of abuse that is very difficult to escape.”
The direct and indirect impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on human lives also serve a role in the increasing violence in households. Stress and anxiety have, undeniably, increased among the general population due to financial strain, job losses, and an ongoing worry about the future. Constant stress stimulates the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked with aggression.⁶ Various reports have shown that natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes are often correlated with an increase in violence. When it comes to disease outbreaks, the situation tends to be more severe. When a natural calamity strikes, there is usually a time-frame after which victims are able to assess and repair damage and move on from the tragedy. However, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is constant worry and fear for the future, with no guarantee of when this will end.
Studies have shown that unemployment is correlated with increasing “intimate partner violence”. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered job losses worldwide and researchers believe that a “threat to masculinity” is one of the factors leading to domestic violence. As Psychology Today explains:
“When masculinity is threatened (for example, by job loss and the perceived failure to “provide”), abusers respond with violence in order to regain a sense of power and control in their relationships.”
A recent survey carried out to evaluate the effects of social distancing on the mental health of Bangladeshi people provided evidence that the impacts of this viral pandemic go beyond financial and medical crises. It was found that 59.7% of the participants suffered from stress. About 33.7% of them reported symptoms of anxiety, of whom 11.6% had moderate anxiety symptoms, and 11.6% had extreme anxiety symptoms. The study said:
“Many respondents reported that their daily lives were significantly disrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing quarantine measures. A majority said “the worst is yet to come” when asked to speculate on the trajectory of the Covid-19 outbreak in Bangladesh. A majority also believed that the pandemic would negatively impact their job, income, or education. Over half agreed that the pandemic would especially jeopardise the mental health of those with existing physical health conditions. Negative perceptions regarding the Covid-19 pandemic were significantly associated with worse mental health scores.”⁷
As with the survey conducted by MJF displayed above, this survey too had limitations as it was carried out online, excluding a great number of people, especially from rural areas. However, the results still provide strong evidence that the current pandemic has a detrimental impact on the mental health of people. The ongoing stress and anxiety and the uncertainty of the future ultimately lead to increased violence and abuse.
The effects of violence on its victims are disastrous. Other than the obvious physical injuries, women who are abused by their partners suffer higher risks of sexually transmitted infections and miscarriage. There is also an elevated risk of mental health issues. According to Medicine Today, there is a strong correlation between gender-based violence (GBV) and the mental health of its victims.
“Women exposed to one form of GBV (i.e. rape, other forms of sexual assault, physical intimate partner violence or stalking) had double the rate (58%) of developing a common mental disorder, including depression, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse or attempted suicide, compared with a rate of 27% among women who had not experienced GBV. Both physical and psychological forms of GBV have significant adverse consequences for mental health. GBV is also strongly associated with disability, poor quality of life, unemployment and overall socioeconomic disadvantage among women survivors.”⁸
One of the characteristics of mental health and its association with GBV is that it is reciprocal. Women who face violence are likely to suffer from mental disorders, which in turn, may make them more vulnerable to violence. Deteriorated physical health, decreased self-esteem, and self-confidence lower a woman’s capacity of gaining formal education or maintaining good health.
“As a consequence, the woman can become isolated, more dependent on the perpetrator and less confident in her personal capabilities, outcomes that in turn may increase her vulnerability to maltreatment.”
It is not enough knowing the reasons for this horrifying pandemic taking place in the shadows; collective effort will be required to combat the crisis. MJF has taken the first steps to collect data regarding domestic violence which will be crucial to let the general population see the horrors of the Shadow Pandemic. However, as has been established, the majority of women who are victims of domestic abuse either do not have the means to seek help or are not educated enough about abuse to realise that they deserve help.
Helplines are useful in providing support to women who have access to technology. But women living in slums, in rural and hilly areas, homeless women, women who are dependent on their abusers for livelihood, women who are threatened by their families to keep silent, need a more tactical approach. Local NGOs can play a role in these cases and offer shelter to survivors of abuse and ensure that perpetrators are locked behind bars.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a series of complicated issues that are affecting the worldwide population. As a result, the cases of increased gender-based violence are being pushed aside as unimportant. However, no issue should be regarded as such, and the Shadow Pandemic must be recognised and fought against. Victims and survivors of all backgrounds must be given equal importance.
- The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19
- Infographic: The Shadow Pandemic:Violence Against Women and Girls and COVID-19
- Violence against Women A Telephone Survey: Initiative o Survey perio ce against Women and Children: COVID 19 Survey: Initiative
- Phase III: Media Tracking of Domestic Violence, Bangladesh
- The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019
- Why the Increase in Domestic Violence During COVID-19?
- (PDF) The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of the adult population in Bangladesh: A nationwide cross-sectional study
- Gender-based violence and women’s mental healthhealth
The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.
This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA, under their project “Strengthening voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.