Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Gendering – Coronavirus (Covid-19) and Femicide

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Shalva Weil, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

On Femicide and Coronavirus: Two Pandemics
Femicide, or the killing of women because they are women, is also a pandemic, and yet it has never been declared as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Until recently, it was also ‘invisible’ in sociology [1]. Femicide, like the coronavirus, occurs in every society indiscriminately and spreads at an incalculable rate. While diminishing in no way the importance of combating Coronavirus (Covid-19), it is incredible to note that some 90,000 women are intentionally killed each year because they are women, while at the time of writing, 110,000 people, many elderly with health problems, have died from the coronavirus since the 2020 outbreak.

Of course, it is odious to compare numbers of people dying, and it appears that the numbers dying from Coronavirus simply increase day by day; by the time of this publication, the global toll will unfortunately be higher. Nevertheless, both pandemics – femicide and Covid-19 – have to be eradicated. The difference is that coronavirus is sudden and unpredictable, whereas femicide is constant and, unfortunately, predictable.

From 2013–7, I chaired a European Union-funded COST (Cooperation on Science and Technology) Action entitled “Femicide across Europe”, with a Management Committee of 80 representatives from 30 European countries. At the termination of the Action, we edited a volume summing up our intense activity over four years, which included the establishment of working groups in Europe on the definition of femicide, on data assessment and gathering, on patterns of culture which affect femicide, ad on prevention of the murders of women [2]. In 2018, we established the European Observatory on Femicide, based in Malta, and today in Cyprus and Germany, which is dedicated to gathering qualitative as well as quantitative data on femicide.

During the duration of the COST Action, I also attended three different meetings of the United Nations to promote the recognition of the word ‘femicide’, and to call for guidelines to prevent the gender-related killings of women and girls. While each country had national laws and policies regarding the lethal killing of women, it became obvious that femicide is a global phenomenon, which demands international collaboration in order to be eradicated. The same is true of the Coronavirus, which has been declared by WHO as a global pandemic; femicide has not.

The Impact of Covid-19 on Domestic Violence
While it is unlikely that femicide has affected Coronavirus, the virus has indeed impacted upon domestic violence and femicide. In March 2020, I reactivated my femicide network of European researchers and policymakers, and scholars and advocates the world over. I turned to 210 key personnel in 50 countries, asking how they are faring under the threat of the Coronavirus and what is going on with domestic violence and femicide in their countries. I report here on unsystematic data received from 36 colleagues, whom I thank for their responses.

All respondents were unequivocal that increased proximity between women and  abusive partners in a lockdown increases domestic violence. Indeed, in the same week, the United Nations issued a report entitled ‘Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity in which they noted that ‘… accompanying the crisis has been a spike in domestic violence reporting, at exactly the time that services, including rule of law, health and shelters, are being diverted to address the pandemic. With families isolated in their homes, children are also facing the rapid increase of online child abuse’. The French interior minister, Christophe Castaner, publicly admitted that domestic violence had increased by 30% since the lockdown, and a similar situation is reported in other countries. According to my informants in Spain, there is a steep rise in male violence as women are confined at home with their partners.

Furthermore, the threat and closure of some women’s shelters in many countries has meant that women and their children are now in daily fear of being murdered by their proven abusive partners; in some cases, women are thrown back to live with their assailants in frightening circumstances. With greater isolation, women are less in touch with social networks and support groups, and helplessness is increasing.

Sometimes, misogyny knows no bounds, even under the Coronavirus threat. In Romania, one Covid-19 patient was caught escaping quarantine on the way to attacking his ex-wife! In Cyprus, two independent research sources reported to me that domestic violence reports to the police have risen. In Turkey, as in many other countries, the hotlines are inundated with complaints by women, who are suffering both mental and physical violence at the hands of partners cooped up with them in the same house. In Brazil, the state hotline ‘Ligue 180’ reported an increase of 18% in calls in one week in March 2020 alone. Many additional cases of severe domestic violence may remain unreported, in situations in which the only way to inform the authorities is by internet or by phone, and these may be prohibited or confiscated by an abusive co-resident.

Nations are being forced to confront the issues of domestic violence, while the threat of femicide lures its ugly head daily, but resources are being channeled towards the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, and social and health services are being reduced. At the same time, innovative programmes and reporting techniques are being invented. In France, abused women can say a code (‘mask19’) when picking up drugs at a pharmacist, and subsequently their details will be reported to the authorities. In the UK, victims can dial 999 and then press 55 without saying anything in order to alert the police.

In practice, since femicide is of such low national priority in the age of Coronavirus, it is the NGOs who are taking much of the brunt. In Chile, an organisation has developed a ‘Feminist Emergency Plan for the Coronavirus Crisis’, composed of developing strategies for collective feminist mutual aid, which include emergency plans for women to exit dangerous domestic situations, and mobilising health professionals and carers for children. In Mexico, social sector efforts to cope with violence against women have been truncated, according to my informed respondent, but NGOs are bravely trying to help.

Femicide, the Extreme Form of Domestic Violence, and the Coronavirus
It is obvious that to date there is no collated data on femicide during coronavirus. Nevertheless, there are interesting patterns. While on the one hand, VAW (violence against women) appears to have increased during the pandemic, as evidenced by an increase in hotline complaints, it is too early to determine how much the final outcome of domestic violence, namely femicide, has increased. In Spain, there were 18 femicide fatalities from the beginning of 2020 until mid-March, several of them having occurred during the Coronavirus outbreak. In Argentina, where the rate of femicide is extraordinarily high during regular times, 86 femicides have already been perpetrated since the beginning of 2020, of which 24 occurred during the Covid-19 plague. The Argentinian Femicide Observatory (‘Now that they See Us’) reported that one woman was killed every 29 hours during March 2020. In Turkey, 18 women have been killed since the lockdown has been instituted, the majority in their homes. In Israel, there have been six cases of femicide since January 2020, three of them during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Femicide, like coronavirus, is a pandemic, but it has not been recognised as such. The Covid-19 virus has impacted negatively on domestic violence, and it appears that globally there will be a surge in the rate of femicide during the pandemic. Both WHO and the United Nations are aware of what one of my respondents called ‘domestic terrorism’, but they have few answers in a situation that resources and public health systems have to deal first with the rising numbers of dead and sick. On April 7th 2020, WHO put out ‘tips’ as to how to deal with stress and domestic violence, but no concrete measures. On April 6th 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the ‘horrifying surge in domestic violence’ aimed at women and girls, linked to lockdowns by governments the world over, but he did not mention the likelihood of a rise in global femicide.

Violence against women is inextricably tied to issues of power and control. However much we imagine that the social order has changed and that there is more gender equality, the fact remains that this is still a male-dominated world, today dedicated to combating the virus, but not yet dedicated to eradicating another pandemic: femicide.

[1] Weil, S. (2016) ‘Making Femicide Visible’, Current Sociology 64(7): 1124 –1137. Special Issue on Femicide. In: Special Issue on Femicide edited by Marcuello-Servós, C, Corradi, C., Weil, S. and Boira, S. DOI: 10.1177/0011392115623602.
[2] Weil, S., Corradi, C. and Naudi, M. (2018) Femicide across Europe: theory, research and prevention, Bristol: Policy Press.

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