The COVID19 pandemic is accelerating another global pandemic: violence against women and children. Unlike the virus, domestic violence is not “novel” – it is appallingly common and has been throughout history. In the U.S., stay-at-home orders are increasing the risk of women and children living with abusers. But a network of VAW services still functions in the health crisis. Shelters have been designated as essential business and are open. Counselling and legal aid are offered by phone and video. Courts in many states are automatically extending protection orders for domestic violence survivors, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline is open and offers help 24 hours every day, 7 days a week.
In contrast, lower-income countries have no Plan B for dealing with domestic violence during the Covid19 epidemic: there was no Plan A, either.
According to the World Bank 49 countries do not have laws criminalizing violence against women; 112 do not criminalize marital rape. And even countries where domestic violence is technically illegal, lack of enforcement is the norm. Local police and courts often reflect prevailing social norms that men are justified in beating their wives and children; women who report even severe beatings are turned away by local authorities who view such crimes as a family issue. Poor women who depend on men to feed themselves and their children are fearful of losing their homes and only means of sustenance.
Today’s epidemic heightens women and children’s vulnerability to violence and weakens criminal justice systems that struggled in the best of times.
It illuminates, as well, the need for major investments in justice and protection for women and children and accountability for the men who beat, rape and murder them.
In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, whose purpose was to increase help for victims and legal accountability for offenders, spurred nationwide investment in law enforcement, courts, and service agencies. Since then, the Department of Justice has disbursed more than $8 billion for prevention of domestic violence, including billions for law enforcement and services for abused women and children.
The United States foreign assistance budget includes funds to combat violence against women and girls, but very little of it is designated to help foreign governments investigate domestic violence and apprehend and prosecute the men responsible for it. That is a stark contrast towards its approach at home: The Justice Department’s Violence Against Women grants program requires states to allocate 25 percent for law enforcement, 25 percent for prosecutors and 30 percent for victim services.
Major donor governments have been reluctant to invest foreign aid in criminal justice systems in part because the record of local police and courts has been so poor with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault. International Justice Mission has seen that even modest investments can be transforming. In Guatemala, for instance, collaboration with the police and prosecutors over a four-year period contributed to a tripling of arrests, indictments and convictions of perpetrators of sexual assault of children. A review of case files showed that trauma-informed, victim-friendly process was almost universal – it was rare when the project began.
When the Covid19 pandemic ends, every nation in the world will bury their dead and repair gaping breaches in their economic and health systems. Rebuilding from the ashes of Covid19 must include as well long overdue investments in protecting the lives of women and children from a global epidemic of rape, assault and murder that will surely outlive the virus.
International Justice Mission