COVID-19 lockdown and increasing domestic violence

MANY have now come to the realisation that the current coronavirus epidemic is not the leveler that it was perceived to be when it started as it had been shown that people experience the negative effect of the virus differently depending especially on their place(s) within the societal hierarchy. Whereas the virus was initially perceived as the problem of the elite given that it was circulating more around the airports and infecting those who engaged in international travels, it soon transmuted into a problem of the entire population with the new reality in most countries of the poor and the less privileged being the most affected. It is also the case that even the lockdown and the attendant dislocation to the economies everywhere in the world are being borne disproportionately by the low-level workers who are not able to work remotely and are either furloughed or forced to be exposed to the virus by having to remain at work. It is therefore not surprising that many have been calling for societies and governments to use the response to the pandemic to overhaul and reorganize the entire fabric of the economic functioning to ensure that the economies become more equitable and to bridge the glaring inequality and injustice underpinning their workings. In this respect, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, puts it succinctly: “Governments (must) seize the opportunity to ‘build back better’ … The current crisis is an unprecedented wake-up call … We need to turn the recovery (from the pandemic) into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”

In spite of the attempt to see the fault lines that the coronavirus pandemic has helped to expose and to highlight such deficiencies for attention, one area that has not received as much attention or even acknowledgement is the gargantuan effect of the crisis on women and their place in the society. The case is always made that issues of gender should not be allowed to get in the way of emergencies as if it is not precisely under such emergencies that issues are brought into bold relief and the society is made to see the true effect of its modes of organization with the attendant need to address perceived inadequacies. In this regard, outside of the existing gender gaps in the world, Elisa Martinuzzi has dissected the distressing condition of women under the present pandemic thus: “Women are particularly exposed to this crisis. They are on the frontlines of the fight against the virus itself, making up 70% of global healthcare workers and as much as 95% of long-term care workers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But not only are women putting their lives at risk to save others — they also make up the majority of employees in parts of the economy that have been hardest hit by lockdowns. From leisure to hospitality to retail, entire industries in which women make up a greater share of the workforce have been brought to a halt. Women are also more likely to hold temporary and part-time positions, the types of jobs employers are most likely to cut first in a downturn.” The case is therefore not too difficult to make that women are bearing the major brunt of the pandemic across the globe.

Unfortunately, the situation is such that there is no place to hide for women as they are also not safe at home after being laid off or furloughed because of the virus. Women have always been subjected to domestic violence and sexual assault and exploitation by those close to them at home, with the lockdown occasioned by the pandemic making the situation worse for them as many are now forced to stay at home with their abusers. Virtually every country where records are kept have reported phenomenal increase in the rate of domestic abuse since the lockdown started, with such report eliciting concern for action and the readiness of governments and civil society groups to get involved to mitigate the disaster. But in a clime like Nigeria where it is even a taboo to complain about spousal assaults and violence, nothing has been heard and government has not admitted to any problem in the area of domestic violence on account of the coronavirus lockdown. Yet non-acknowledgement would not necessarily translate into absence of this reality of increasing domestic assault and sexual violence in Nigeria. This is because we are aware, even without the pandemic, of the negative condition that women are exposed to in their various homes as they are bartered and assaulted by drunken, violent husbands and close relations. This situation has been impacted negatively by the culture which entreats women to accept such violence and assault as part of keeping their homes and something not to complain about in order not to expose the family to ridicule. Women in Nigeria have therefore been silent victims of domestic violence and assault for long.

In any case, what would it have mattered to report about domestic assault and violence when the law in Nigeria is firmly against women in that respect.  For how do we expect women to report about sexual assault or rape when Section 211 of the Evidence Act states that men would have the benefit of defending themselves against such accusations by making reference to the ‘immoral character’ of the woman involved as if engaging in violence and assault has anything to do with the character of the person assaulted. In the same vein, the Penal Code also demands the support of four witnesses before any case of assault and rape could be proved – and even with the proviso that in the absence of four witnesses, the woman alleging assault or rape would be charged with defamation.

With provisions like these, it would look like the totality of the position of the law in Nigeria is that the woman cannot be treated as equal person with dignity that should be protected by the society, such that we could only imagine what would be going on under the current lockdown with women in the confines of their different homes with habitual abusers. We therefore have a situation in Nigeria in which women are now having to work hard and slave to sustain their families under this lockdown while also suffering in silence increasing domestic assault and violence. We necessarily have to come to terms with this double jeopardy that women are subjected to and make this part of the conversation as we confront the negative effect of the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.  We need to be aware thar subjecting women to the indignity of unceasing domestic violence detracts from the standing of the whole society and it should be our collective responsibility not only to shine light on this ugly phenomenon, but to also initiate steps at confronting and eradicating it as part of the societal response to the persisting coronavirus pandemic.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.






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