One of the innumerable awful side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rise around the world in reported cases of domestic violence. Across the Oceania region there have been reports that violence against women and children has spiked, from Australia and New Zealand to Fiji and Samoa. While governments have a long list of competing interests they will have to prioritize due to the pandemic, it is of critical importance that domestic violence is not ignored. It is an issue of basic human security, with immeasurable negative consequences.
It has long been acknowledged that women are most likely to be victims of violence from within their own home, either by a partner or another family member. It is also incredibly difficult to measure the true scale of violence against women, as most incidences of both domestic violence and sexual assault remain unreported either due to a fear of repercussions or a distrust of justice systems.
Yet even with just the reported cases of violence against women the statistics are brutal. The Australian government’s Institute of Health and Welfare states that in Australia one woman is killed every nine days by a partner, and that one in six women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner. Globally the rate of violence rises to 35 percent of women, according to the United Nations.
Reasonable people read these statistics and nod along, recognizing their blunt reality, but it is important to take a step back and ask ourselves a fundamental question: If relationships and families are meant to be bonds of mutual love and care, then how does this violence exist within them?
The fact of violence is so normalized that I don’t think we quite comprehend just how extraordinary it actually is that the core purpose of a relationship has been inverted in an astonishing number of cases. It is not something we should be comfortable with.
Part of this normalization stems from our societal approach to this issue. In early April, the Australian government announced that it was providing an additional $20.8 million to the states and territories to immediately reinforce frontline services that seek to assist victims of domestic violence. This was a welcome acknowledgment that the pandemic is creating an increase in instances of domestic violence, yet it remains a reactive measure: The provision of services after the fact.
At the core of this kind of response is a collective, whole of society, expectation that men will continue to commit violence against women, and the best we can do is to try to clean up afterward. We remain at a complete loss about how to reform masculinity away from this instinctive use of violence as an instrument of human interaction. Yet if we continue to expect this kind of behavior from men we will maintain its insidious and destructive presence in our societies. Social values that tolerate these abuses — and justice systems that downplay them — perpetuate the violence.
There are obviously limited actions that governments can take toward getting in front of this issue, but it remains a matter that they should take incredibly seriously. If providing basic human security is the primary function of states, then millions of female citizens are currently existing in insecure conditions, demonstrating a failure of the state’s duty. These millions of individual cases of insecurity also have the ability to compound into wider security dilemmas, as is the case with the related issue of cross-border human trafficking. In this way, states should consider the continued prevalence of domestic violence as an internal security threat.
The financial burden that countries carry from these abuses should also be a considerable concern for governments. It is estimated that domestic violence costs Australia $14 billion a year, alongside the far greater costs in the destruction of people’s lives. In regards to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic it should also be acknowledged that many women may now have their personal financial resources diminished, affecting their ability to leave abusive relationships. Governments can provide resources to assist these women — as Canberra did in early April — but often the realities of people’s lives make accessing such resources difficult.
It is important that we recognize that the current insecurities created by the COVID-19 pandemic are not just related to personal health and finances. For many women, their personal safety has also been negatively affected. Women already live with violence — either directly or the threat of it — as an everyday facet of their existence; it should be unacceptable that this current global crisis has accentuated that reality.
If COVID-19 is prompting us to question our assumptions about how states should be organized, then the increase in domestic violence due to the virus should also prompt us to question persistent harmful norms of human behavior. Collectively, we need to question whether we will continue to accept violence against women as an issue that we can only respond to after the fact, or whether we have the will to wholeheartedly reject such violence, and seek to find ways to evolve masculinity away from these destructive traits.