by Aderonke Ige, YGC 2019.
In the wake of ‘’COVID-19’’, self-isolation became the new normal and we received the stay-at-home order world-over. I have not for one minute been able to blot out of my mind, the day-to-day reality of many victims of domestic and sexual abuse, and the possibility of them sharing the same space with their abusers in this period of self-isolation.
Sherifat is a long-time client of mine and a mother of four, whose momentary escape from her serially abusive husband was her place of work, where she gleefully went to every morning after chores.
On the 20th of March, just when citizens had been instructed to ‘self-isolate’ and not physically socialize outside of their homes, Sheri put a call through to her elder sister, who lives in another State. ‘’He is beating me again. I am scared (…) I am hiding in the bedroom, but he has threatened to come back for me. He has locked the door to the main entrance and is moving around the house with the key. My children are in the living room (…) I am helpless…’’
While still speaking, Sherifat’s phone beeped off. The battery had been low and there was no power supply to their neighbourhood during the entire day. Her sister panics and tries frantically but unsuccessfully to reach Sherifat’s husband on the phone…
Sadly, Sherifat’s story is the story of many victims of domestic violence, with different variations. To imagine the fate of these humans in a period when precautionary measures against the COVID-19 pandemic require self-isolation and stay-home measures, is beyond troubling. Most of those who were just on their way to walking away from their abusers are suddenly compelled to share the same space with their abusers. This could be mitigated if our social systems were designed with safe spaces for victims, or auto-pilot intervention measures that would immediately secure victims from harm’s way.
The reality of victims of domestic violence in crisis periods is big enough. To then grapple with many possibilities of aggression, frustration and consequent violent behaviour of an abuser in a confined space with their victim is cringe worthy. The COVID-19 pandemic and the strategies adopted globally to curb its spread have further revealed many systemic weaknesses and loopholes, which now nudge us towards rethinking our humanity and figuring out effective measures to safeguard the continued existence of citizens.
For domestic and sexual violence, some governments have commissioned institutions and designed response actions to distress calls with follow-up measures sometimes. However, those interventions are hardly ever comprehensive enough or easily accessible.
For many victims that I have come in contact with in the course of my work and daily life, it is the fear in their eyes! The shaky voices, the hopelessness, the frustration, the confusion, the uncertainty, the dejectedness… they often feel drained. Most victims of domestic and sexual violence are women and children.
How seriously does our system (justice/social) hold aggressors accountable – without apportioning blame to the victim or rationalizing the aggressor’s behaviour? How quick is the process of safeguarding the well-being of victims and dependents? What are the immediately guaranteed options for the victim: shelter, psychosocial support, legal and other immediate needs?
As a lawyer who is committed to equitable justice and human rights, I have often found myself playing the role of an advocate, counsellor, therapist and financier to many of the victims who come to me, and by often, I mean every single time! Isn’t this descriptive of a system that has refused to make adequate provisions for this dire situation?
There is a small glimmer of hope for victims in countries or regions with functional and efficient emergency response numbers. On the flip side are countries where emergency response is as hopeless as the power supply, or where one does not even exist at all! In Nigeria, where I come from, one can only pinpoint a few regions, too few, who have instituted solution-based actions.
In all my concern for persons undergoing domestic violence in this isolation period, I keep remembering my El-Salvadorian experience, during an understudy visit to South America and El-Savador in particular. My visit to the center for women ‘’Ciudad Mujer’’ stood out and warmed my heart. It was interesting how the institution was set up and equipped to attend to all-round needs of victims of all forms of violence, especially in emergency situations. The facility readily felt like a safe place for physical, legal, psychological, material and emotional support. The people I met felt a sense of solace, they shared, gained… they felt seen, helped and they found solidarity in community! Is it also perfect? Maybe not. But does it seriously attempt to bring immediate succour and solutions to victims? Definitely.
With this musing, what I hope to achieve is that during this pandemic, governments and citizens world over can begin to consider with a bit more seriousness, the plights of victims of domestic violence and abuse in impossible situations, such as when self-isolation compels victims and potential victims of domestic violence to share solitary spaces with their aggressors or potential abusers. We must collectively rise up to the occasion of saving lives that could be lost not to the pandemic but to violence and abuse during the pandemic.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Solutions Initiative.
Aderonke, a Young Global Changer of 2019, is a Nigerian Human Rights Lawyer and Social Impact practitioner with over 10 years’ experience working on Gender Justice and Legislative advocacy for Community Service.