Health and Medicine People and Community

Violence against women, children escalates during pandemic

During an online seminar Tuesday, experts explored ways in which the coronavirus has increased domestic violence in Latin America.
Felicia Knaul, Chelsea Clinton, Carolina Coll, and Beverley Essue
From left, Felicia Knaul, Chelsea Clinton, Carolina Coll, and Beverley Essue

Violence against women and children in Latin America is an ongoing crisis. It is estimated that one in three women is a victim, and one in five young people have been subjected to violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the crisis. For the past seven months, while in social isolation, many victims have been closeted with their abusers, experts said.  

“These are huge issues,” said Felicia Knaul, director of the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and founding president of Tomatelo a Pecho, a Mexican non-profit organization with the mission of contributing to the reduction of breast cancer. “Domestic violence was there before COVID-19, it is there during it, it will be there after, very sadly,” she added.

Knaul spoke on Tuesday as part of the online seminar “Flattening the Surge of Violence against Women and Children: COVID-19 and Beyond,” sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and The Lancet Commission on Gender-based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People.

Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Public Health, was also a speaker during the event. Carolina Coll, post-doctoral fellow at the International Center for Equity in Health acted as moderator and Beverley Essue, associate professor of the University of Toronto’s Global Health Institute of Health Policy, joined as commentator.

Decades of progress in advancing gender equality and empowerment were put at risk because of the pandemic, according to Knaul. And it should be seen as a syndemic, a synergistic set of pandemics that unite a set of non-communicable diseases of poverty and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.

Curbing a pandemic is very different from curbing a syndemic, she said. To curb the latter, society has to face issues that make victims vulnerable and create an integrated set of responses so that pandemic preparedness is better able to solve the problems of our world, she added.

“COVID has exacerbated our existing social conditions,” even in the U.S., Clinton said.  “We have to be quite candid about what about our social normative and legal structures has made women especially vulnerable in these times,” she added.

Women may be more vulnerable, she pointed out, perhaps because there is an “absence of equal pay,” and they also make up the majority of health and social workers who are in the front lines of the pandemic. It could also be the prevalence of gun violence, she remarked.

“We have more than 1 million American women who are survivors of intimate partner gun violence in our country,” Clinton explained. While in many states it is illegal for domestic abusers to purchase guns, those laws are not enforced, she said.

According to Clinton, solutions to curb domestic violence should include providing middle and high school education programs that teach children what “healthy relationships are” since data show that children who are involved in violent relationships as children tend to continue in them as adults.

“It’s deeply painful to me that the Trump administration has cut funding for so many programs that really work,” Clinton noted.

Knaul emphasized that at this time countries should not divest of public health and primary health programs or maternal and child health programs, as well as HIV/AIDS programs. These all are crucial to help women and families during the pandemic when many are losing their jobs.

Mexico took away the Seguro Popular, a universal health program, at the beginning of 2020 leaving many without health care, Knaul indicated. By contrast some other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, have established conditional cash transfer programs to families during the pandemic that have helped support many.   Strong stewardship and leadership are also important in curbing both the pandemic and domestic violence, Knaul stated. She mentioned, as an example of failed leadership, when the president of Mexico denied that domestic violence was an issue even when faced with a surge of deaths.

Both speakers also agreed that COVID-19 has brought to the fore the increase of cyber violence, particularly against women and children. Clinton acknowledged that for five years the World Health Organization has explored the ways that cyber violence can have real health consequences, but there are no legally successfully strategies to target this violence.

“We actually don’t have good evidence of what works to help prevent or treat the effects of cyberbullying,” she admitted. Adding that  it was quite “painful to live under this leadership” and to see a “president that is actively fomenting cyber violence.”

The Lancet Commission on Gender-based Violence and Maltreatment of Young People and the University of Miami will continue to hold monthly seminars to explore this topic.