Published: March 29th, 2020 Updated: March 29th, 2020
Around the world, as cities have gone into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, the mass efforts to save lives have put one vulnerable group more at risk.
Women and children who live with domestic violence have no escape from their abusers during quarantine, and from Brazil to Germany, Italy to China, activists and survivors say they are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse.
In Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the lockdown in February, from 47 last year to 162 this year, activists told local media.
“The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence,” Wan Fei, a retired police officer who founded a charity campaigning against abuse, told Sixth Tone website. “According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence [in this period] are related to the Covid-19 epidemic.”
The increased threat to women and children was a predictable side effect of the coronavirus lockdowns, said activists. Increased abuse is a pattern repeated in many emergencies, whether conflict, economic crisis or during disease outbreaks, although the quarantine rules pose a particularly grave challenge.
“It happens in all crisis situations,” said Marcy Hersh, a senior manager for humanitarian advocacy at Women Deliver. “What we worry about is just as rates of violence are on the rise, the accessibility of services and the ability of women to access these services will decrease. This is a real challenge.”
In many countries there have been calls for legal or policy changes to reflect the increased risk to women and children in quarantine.
In the UK, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for authorities to waive court fees for the protection orders.
Published: March 16th, 2020 Updated: March 16th, 2020
“I was taken on the pretext that I was going for a fun outing,” says Masooma Ranvali. “Little did I know that it would turn out to be one of the most horrible moments of my life. It was done very surreptitiously.”
Ranvali, who was seven years old at the time, says her grandmother took her to a dark, dingy building in India where she was immediately ordered to lie down on the floor by an elderly lady.
“I remember it very clearly,” she tells The Independent. “I was like, ‘Why should I lie down?’ But my grandmother pulled me down. She opened my legs and pulled down my panties. I was sobbing. It was brutal. The woman then took a blade or a knife to cut a part of me. It was painful. I know I came home and cried with my mother. I was small and innocent. I was in pain for about a week after.”
The 52-year-old, who is a survivor of female gender mutilation (FGM), says she blocked the memory out for many years due to being expressly forbidden from talking about the issue and there being a “shroud of silence” around it in her community.
Her warnings come as Equality Now, a non-government organisation which promotes the rights of women and girls, found official data on the global prevalence of FGM released by Unicef, which claims it affects at least 200 million women, “woefully” underestimates both the nature and scale of the issue.
The report, shared with The Independent ahead of its release date, found there is growing evidence that FGM takes place across the world, in numerous countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America and Latin America.
Divya Srinivasan, who wrote the report, says: “We are missing out on counting large groups of women and children who have undergone FGM. For example, after Indonesia conducted a national survey to estimate FGM prevalence for the first time, Unicef’s global estimates jumped from 125 million to 200 million.”
Srinivasan, an Indian lawyer who specialises in women’s rights and works for the south Asia branch of Equality Now, argued a dearth of accurate data can lead to governments being reluctant to tackle FGM and ignoring the issue.
FGM, internationally recognised as a human rights violation, refers to any procedure that intentionally alters female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure, which can cause a lifetime of severe health problems and pain, is often carried out without anaesthesia.
“It is a very painful, bitter, and scary memory,” Ranvali adds. “I did not speak to anyone. That includes my mother and sisters. As a child, it was very isolating. As a child, it was an inexplicable and horrible phenomenon. It has to do with the genitals which is something nobody talks about. It is that part of your body which is hush hush. It is a shameful area. It makes you feel like your genital area is dirty and like there is something wrong with you which had to be cut and removed.”
“In my thirties, I read about the practice in Africa,” she adds. “It rang a bell in me. I thought, ‘Isn’t this what we also do? Isn’t this what happened to me?’ That was a horrible and painful moment. In my forties, I decided to break my silence. I had a young daughter who was not cut but I had the realisation that not everyone is as lucky as her. My daughter’s generation is also being cut.”
Ranvali, who says “100 per cent” of her generation has been cut, argues FGM is carried out to control women’s sexual urges to ensure they do not have premarital sex or extramarital affairs due to the procedure making sex more painful.
“The clitoris is the part of female anatomy where sexual pleasure is,” she adds. “To control your daughter you have to do it. There is this unsaid fear. It is fear sold to parents of girls that you have to be careful and if you do not do this then you will have trouble in your hands. It is part of patriarchal notions.”
Dr Tasneem Perry, who is also from the Bohra community, says she has hazy memories of the day she was subjected to FGM in a private GP clinic in Sri Lanka but can recall that her father accompanied her to the doctor.
“It was unusual for my father to come,” the 42-year-old explains. “I was seven. I have had a year of counselling and I still have not got this memory back.”
Dr Perry, who says the procedure was carried out in a medical setting despite the practice being illegal, did not become aware of the fact she had been cut until she turned 16 or 17 and asked her mother about what had happened to her.
She adds: “My need to talk about it is to prevent another girl from going through what I went through. If you belong to the Bohra community FGM is a requirement. The dichotomy is the community is very open, liberal, educated and well-integrated.”
Dr Perry, who now works as a teacher, says as she got older she started to question what normal sex would be like and started to feel a profound sense of loss. Her mother would cry when she brought it up with her as she got older, she adds.
“I remember feeling that whatever had been done to me had been done to make me a suitable wife,” she says. “It fuelled my desire not to conform or marry within the community. I had confused feelings of anger and discomfort. It was all this buried emotion – unarticulated frustrated rage. The year before last I finally had a physical examination at the doctors and a specialist said I have no visible clitoris. I feel like a part of me that makes me completely whole was taken away from me. I have lost something I can never replace. The grief will never go away.”