"Let’s hold each other accountable."
For more than a decade, Joanna* endured physical, verbal, and psychological abuse from her husband. In the early years, she was hesitant to leave him, because her three daughters were then very young, and because she was raised to believe that a complete family is always preferable to a broken family.
As her daughters grew up, nothing changed in Joanna’s predicament. Her husband only became more demanding, more accusatory and more cruel to her even in the presence of their children, his family, and their friends. He worked overseas briefly but suffered an illness there, such that he had to return to the Philippines where there were fewer job opportunities given his health issues.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
Joanna had to close her modest food stall because of the lockdown – it was in front of a school. She was forced to stay home all the time, the same home where her husband, jobless and frustrated and angry as ever, also was. The insults, the cutting remarks, the recriminations got worse. She was made to feel that the closure of her stall was her fault. He accused her of squandering his earnings abroad. Needless to say, the cursing and the beatings got worse, and Joanna was desperate for an excuse to go out on essential errands just so she could get out of that house for a while, and take in some fresh air.
“Bahala na 'yung COVID,” she remarked.
Joanna is not alone. Around the world, violence in the home – ironically deemed the safest place to be during this pandemic – has intensified for many victims of domestic abuse. Prior to COVID, they could at least go to their workplaces (if they had jobs to begin with) or see their friends or family. But now they are forced to stay in with their intimate partner, with the aggravation of health and economic anxieties.
The United Nations calls this the shadow pandemic.
The figures are alarming. According to the UN, one in three women/ girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner. Calls to domestic violence hotlines in many countries have increased since the outbreak of COVID-19. And just 52 percent of women married or in a union freely make their own decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and health care.
This type of violence is a widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violation. Chances are, the figures above are understated; many more cases remain unreported because of the impunity of macho culture, a misplaced belief that a good woman bears it all and does not complain, the notion that the woman may have done something bad to deserve the violence, and the stigma around separated women and single mothers.
When women experience abuse, they remain scarred, even long after the physical bruises and scars are healed. They are not able to attain their potential as individuals and as contributors to society. They withdraw into their own shell and limit interaction with other people. They are also not able to parent as well as they want to, because they have to face their own trauma instead of helping prepare their children for a fruitful, productive life ahead.
Last Wednesday, November 25, was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is an annual commemoration that has taken on a greater significance because of the current crisis. A global effort is needed to stop such violence, the UN says, especially since budgets for domestic violence shelters and helplines have also been affected by the pandemic.
A global problem like domestic violence could sound so overwhelming, especially when tied to other big issues like human rights, gender equality, mental health. This could make such observances like the International Day of Elimination of VAW seem so far removed from everyday experience, especially if we are so engrossed with our own concerns – holding on to a job, for instance, or keeping everybody in the family safe from the virus.
The website of UN Women provides a list of practical steps on how each of us can do our part in ending violence against women, not only every November 25. I chose a few items that I felt are most doable in our context. In our own circles, with our own relatives, friends or peers, we can help by:
Listening to and believing survivors. A woman who chooses to confide in you has in fact taken the first step toward breaking the cycle by speaking about it. Listen and show empathy. Don’t ask her why she has not left already. Don’t say her situation is not so bad. Encourage her to speak more so that she could break out of the environment created by her abuser.
Teaching the next generation. Set examples for the young in thinking about gender, respect, and human rights. Challenge traditional notions and qualities assigned to men and women, and identify stereotypes and other traps that they may encounter in media or in conversations with others.
Understanding consent. Make it a point to ensure that there is a very clear line that separates “yes” and “no” and that anybody should not be compelled to say “yes” when she feels the opposite.
Learning the signs of abuse. Be sensitive and keen in observing your relative or friend who might insist she is “okay.”
Starting a conversation about abuse. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Keeping silent about abuse is exactly the reason it has persisted for so long.
Standing against rape culture. We hear rape jokes all the time. It is never right to let that person get away with such statements by thinking that they meant no harm or it’s just the way they are. Call them out – perhaps ask them to explain their joke so they are the ones put on the spot.
Holding each other accountable. Call out family, friends, or peers when they utter words that help maintain the culture. Even if they say they did not mean it or they were just trying to be funny.
Joanna has just bought a ticket back to her parents’ home in the province. One way, for one. She has mixed feelings. She has to figure out how she and her daughters can be together again. Now in her late 30s, she needs to find a job, her own place, her confidence, her voice. She says she is terrified of not knowing what her future would be.
It took her many years – and many previous attempts – to break free. But today she knows one thing for certain: The thought of spending the rest of her life with somebody who torments and demeans her, and raising her daughters to believe this kind of treatment is all right, was much more terrifying.
*Name and other details were changed.