Dr Kim Barker and Dr Olga Jurasz are Senior Lecturers in Law at The Open University and members of the Feminism, Gender and Law research cluster. They have recently contributed an evidence submission on COVID-19 and violence against women to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Dr Dubravka Šimonović.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not created a new crisis for women’s rights, and for the eradication of all forms of violence against women (VAW), but has instead, exacerbated an already difficult situation in which incidences of VAW – off and online were increasing. Moreover, the pandemic lockdown periods have resulted in – not only – heightened instances of VAW and technology-facilitated VAW, but where coverage of this has been reported, it has resulted in a backlash against women, which in itself is a form of VAW which is not always readily captured. In particular, the challenges were particularly noticeable in three distinct areas: Technologically facilitated violence against women (TFVAW), reproductive rights, and women’s protests.
Technologically facilitated violence against women – including death and rape threats, stalking, harassment, and hostile, often misogynistic violence has seen heightened levels pre-COVID-19, which has manifested itself in a backlash against those women campaigning for women’s rights during the pandemic. This is particularly damaging to women’s rights, especially because of the gender divide when it comes to experiencing violence online, but more so because it is apparent that women will be more likely to disengage with online platforms – effectively being silenced – once they have experienced online violence. In times of pandemic, this impact is much more damaging, especially because women – especially those experiencing TFVAW or VAW – have had reduced means of accessing resources providing support and help that are not purely online. TFVAW witnessed during the pandemic has not just impacted upon women through their subjectification to such violence but has been exacerbated by the dependency on internet access, and the use of smart devices.
Women’s reproductive choices during the COVID-19 pandemic have been disrupted on an unprecedented scale, with changes in the access to, and provision of, health care. Several reports have highlighted the negative impact of the pandemic on women’s access to reproductive healthcare and their ability to exercise their reproductive rights. For instance, despite the access to abortion being legalised in Northern Ireland from 31 March 2020, the impact of the pandemic meant that effective access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland has been further delayed. Furthermore, in countries such as Malta, where abortion is illegal, travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 further exacerbated the existing barriers to women exercising their reproductive rights and being able to travel abroad for abortion. In March and April 2020 alone, the UK-based charity Abortion Support Network, noted 2.3 times increase in number of requests for help from women in Malta, with Women on Web (a Dutch charity providing abortion pills) reporting that at least 63 women from Malta have contacted the organisation to seek help in the same time period. In contrast, in England & Wales, the outbreak of the pandemic prompted considerations of how to provide easy and safe access to abortion for women, resulting in a change of regulations allowing women to receive abortion pills via the post for terminations up to 10 weeks of gestation. The decision of the Department of Health and Social Care was welcomed with enthusiasm by the leading human rights organisations and further endorsed by the leading expert bodies such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH).
The challenges posed by lockdown, by a closing of face-to-face resources and support mechanisms, and by the increased dependency on internet enabled devices have compounded situations that were – perhaps – not as widely acknowledged nor reported previously. The media coverage of different areas of ‘life under lockdown’ has – in the absence of global reporting and live broadcasts from around the world – allowed a different narrative to emerge in the mass media, and some of that has fallen on women’s rights. That said, where women speak out for women’s rights, and for addressing all forms of VAW, there is still a significant backlash which follows. This is a very direct form of VAW – one that significantly affects women’s right to equal participation in political and public life – and it too must be eradicated – but the narrative surrounding this form of violence has been much less addressed.
For instance, women activists in Poland mobilised online to express their resistance to the proposed changes that further curtail women’s rights. They protested online using hashtags #StrajkKobiet (Women’s Strike), #PiekloKobiet (Women’s Hell) and #OdrzucProjektGodek (reject Godek’s project), exercising their political rights and actively participating online.
More generally, the striking differences in states’ approaches to women’s rights and tackling VAW in times of pandemic, highlights the gendered dimensions of law (and politics), and the power of the law in curtailing women’s rights. What is stark, is the scale of the challenge that remains, and the damage that pandemic-imposed restrictions have caused to efforts to eradicate all forms of VAW. Finally, the unprecedented times of COVID-19 have highlighted the amount of work and interventions – at an international, regional, state and local levels – that still needs to be done to ensure that women’s rights are effectively protected at all times.