As the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the world, governments across the globe are implementing quarantines, curfews, and lockdowns to slow its spread. Likewise, sub-Saharan African governments including but not limited to Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and Ghana have followed suit in a bid to keep their citizens safe. For women living under abusive and violent conditions, the reality is different. The imposed stay at home order is akin to a game of Russian roulette: virus or violence. While Covid-19 is a public health pandemic, it may also be a harbinger for another “pandemic.” That of domestic violence. Since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, experts have predicted its negative economic impact on the African continent with the United Nations (UN) reporting that already £24 billion has been lost to the crisis. However, modest attention is being paid to the effects of this pandemic on victims of domestic violence.
While domestic violence affects people of all demographics worldwide, women are disproportionately affected compared to men with more than 83% of victims being female. Moreover, research suggests that women in sub-Saharan Africa are subjected to more lifetime intimate partner violence than anywhere else in the world. Most of the violence is unreported or worse still, accepted in some communities. For instance, in 2016 Uganda and Mali recorded a 77% acceptance rate of intimate partner violence against women and the numbers are still high. This suggests a higher likelihood of victimization in domestic violence prone homes as families spend more time together and opportunities for conflict become increasingly available. For domestic violence victims, these stay at home orders not only ensure that victims and perpetrators spend more time together, but that they are together continuously. This is potentially more dangerous than previously when time spent together was interspaced by periods of economic activity outside the home and external socializing. Furthermore, opportunities for external interruptions and support network access substantially diminish as people adhere to social distancing rules, leaving victims of intimate partner violence significantly isolated and disempowered.
Conducted between 2016 and 2018, the Round 7 Afrobarometer survey interviewed respondents from 34 African countries to understand their perspectives on whether wife-beating, a form of physical assault, is justified. An overwhelming majority of respondents (71%) indicated that it is “never justified” for a man to beat his wife, whereas 28% said that it is “sometimes” or “always justified” for men to beat their wives. Disapproval of wife battering is widespread and far higher in countries, such as Cabo Verde (97% say it is “never” justified), eSwatini (96%), Madagascar (96%), Malawi (95%), Mauritius (92%) and Tanzania (91%). However, violence against wives is more accepted in countries, such as Gabon (70% say it is “sometimes” or “always” justified), Liberia (69%), Niger (60%), Guinea (58%), Mali (58%) and Cameroon (53%). Women (76%) are more strong in their condemnation of wife-beating in comparison to men (69%).
Figure 1: Attitudes Towards Wife-beating · 34 Countries · 2016/2018
Figure 2: Attitudes Towards Wife-beating · By Gender
It is quite possible that acceptance of wife-beating is actually higher than reflected in the Afrobarometer survey given that respondents may be providing socially desirable responses to these sensitive questions. That said, the Afrobarometer survey results provide a baseline to show how forms of domestic violence are accepted in a number of African countries.
There are some situations that make physical assault, such as wife-beating, and other forms of intimate partner violence more likely. Intimate partner violence typically thrives in environments where power asymmetry abounds and perpetrators can manipulate and control their victims in one or more ways; psychologically, emotionally, financially and physically. Worse still, 85% of Africans survive on less than $5 per day. For these families, the orders to stay at home could likely mean an existential crisis as they suffer from food, shelter and financial insecurity. Consequently, the potential for violence to occur in such circumstances is much more likely compared to when social services and housing security are available. Such emotional and financial stressors are triggers for perpetrators who are already confined with their victims for extended periods, leaving women even more vulnerable and exposed to elevated levels of violence. Children too, are victimized as they increasingly become exposed to violence that could have happened while they were away at school or become the direct victims of the violence.
When a victim calls a domestic violence hotline, the first question is, “are you in a safe place to talk?” Sadly, for many women at this point, the answer is no. In instances where women typically call their family and friends instead of a domestic violence hotline, the circumstances are likely no different because they are unable to connect to their support systems as their already volatile environments are exacerbated. In sub-Saharan African countries such as Uganda where there is little political will to address intimate partner violence through effective policy reform, it is unlikely that during a precipitous time such as this, victims will be given priority. Instead, they most likely will fall through the cracks in the grand scheme of things. So yes, while people heed the directive to stay at home to remain safe from the pandemic, for domestic violence victims, this decision could mean the difference between death by the virus or ‘death’ by violence.