Sophea Try, Cambodia
To counter the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have taken strict measures by asking their people to stay at home, practising social distancing, or putting the country under partial or full lockdown. Notably, the enforced measures imposed by the government is a range of impact affecting many vulnerable groups such as women and girls. Women and girls are most likely to do additional house work, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family members. While women continue to shoulder a disproportionate and increasing burden of care, it can lead to the high risk of gender-based violence, especially sexula expolitation.
Likewise in Malaysia, as the country has witnessed the increasing numbers regarding the Covid-19 cases, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin decided to implement a nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18 March. The first-phase of the order was expected to last until 31 March, but later got extended until 14 April. Following this order, schools, non-essential services, and factories have been closed and people have to stay at home to minimize the contact. Since the rate of new cases per day remained consistently high in the country, the government had announced further extension of the MCO to last until 28 April 2020.
Undeniably, the nationwide lockdown in Malaysia has an impact particularly on women and girls as they are at the high risk of facing gender-based violence. Many domestic violence activists and NGOs have reported an increased number of people who have called for help. The government also revealed that since the start of the movement restrictions, the welfare hotline saw a 57 percent spike in calls. In an effort to stop domestic violence in the country, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs on 31 March, shared a series of online posters that advised women to “dress up at home and avoid nagging their husband” during the nation lockdown. It actually reflected government insensitivity toward victim-blaming and normalising domestic violence. The posters sparked massive criticism from activists and commenters over the media and later were taken down.
While home is the safe place to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, we should realize that home can also be the most terrified and dangerous place for some women and girls. Since abuse mostly happens behind closed doors, home becomes the most violent space for committing the violence. Victims of domestic violences are likely to report the case or ask for help only when they are not with their abusive partners, and there is a chance for victims to report the case when the abusers are going for work or going outside. However, during the lockdown, women and girls who experienced the abuse cannot escape the house and they are likely to be trapped with the abusers. Thus, restrictions on leaving the house make it harder for the victims to report the case and seek help on time. Currently in Malaysia, a walk-in service to report the case is unavailable due to the movement restriction. Many domestic violences service providers are also unable to help the victim in person and respond effectively. Access to justice services have disrupted as well since the government institutions shift resources to the public health crisis.
Although the government is now preoccupied with a pandemic, the Malaysian government shall ensure its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of its people at all times. Violence against women is still a crime and the victims have a right to be protected. The government must urgently protect women and girls against the violence during the crisis by adapting a new way to help people. The state should offer temporary shelters for the victims. Although access to health services for women may dwindle at this moment, the government should strengthen essential health services, as well as consultation and psycho-social support. While everything has moved to online communication, so does the online advocacy. There should be more campaigns to give information on how women can access the service. In addition to this, communities and service providers need to be in a friendly manner to help the victims by encouraging them to report the case through emergency response hotlines, phone consultations, and virtual sessions.
Never could we have imagined that we need to deal with this unpredictable pandemic. However, gender-based violence is not a new phenomenon, and the Covid -19 is just a fuel to spark the violence more unhearable and unreachable. This global health crisis not only tests the ability of everyone to respond to it quickly and effectively, but also add more responsibility for us to reach out to the vulnerable groups who are at high risk.
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.