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The Violence Epidemic in the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed another longtime epidemic- violence against women and girls. "Stay at home"orders have required millions of women worldwide to quarantine with their abusers and made it more difficult for them to seek help. Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, a founding member of the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and a domestic violence survivor, speaks out with actions women can take to protect themselves, now and in the future.

No woman is immune to violence. I am an anthropologist with a Masters in gender studies, a rape survivor, an activist openly living with HIV since 2000. I learned from feminist professors and took part in several international committees defending women’s rights. Still, I know what it’s like to feel trapped in a violent, toxic relationship. I was in a relationship with a man who beat me and left threatening messages to kill me. He used my HIV status to justify his violence. And yet, I never reported him to the police.

Why? I live in Bolivia, and despite a very progressive law on paper, women in my country—like in many countries—lack real protection and face several barriers on the path to seeking justice.

Even before coronavirus hit, the obstacles to getting help were high—ranging from shame to police corruption. Even when women speak up, justice eludes them. In Bolivia, the International Human Rights Clinic studied these barriers for women who report violence and found that only 4.7% of violence cases reported go to court; and only 0.04% of 14,000 reports of sexual violence in 2013 concluded with a sentence against the rapists.

Coronavirus lockdowns mean millions of women worldwide must quarantine with their abusers. This makes it even harder for them to seek help.

But I believe that silence is death. We have to speak.

As a woman who has experienced violence by an intimate partner, I still believe there is hope for us. The following are actions we can take now in order to defend ourselves, even amid this pandemic:

  • Use the emergency support made available because of the quarantine. For example in France, the government is providing safe housing in hotels. In the United States, organizations that are distributing food to needy families can hand out leaflets listing domestic violence support services. Some pharmacies have begun using safe words for people to indicate they need help, without raising their abuser’s suspicion. Many countries including Bolivia, Chile, Argentina opened additional safe houses for women and made available more numbers to call and report violence, receive psychological and legal support.

  • Keep a trusted relative or friend informed about your situation, location and safety and give her/him practical information to reach you, in case you have to escape. Speak with a person who could give you safe shelter, these might include your close neighbors who can run and assist you in an emergency, which is the example of Moreno Neighbors in Argentina.

  • When the restrictions are finished or eased, you still need to make a formal police notification. Despite the lengthiness of the process, a police report is a precedent that can be used in court later.

  • Download safety apps to reach preselected contacts in an emergency situation.

  • Save money when you can. Successful experiences of women who broke the silence showed that access to money and some form of independent income and savings helped trigger the decision to break the cycle of violence.

  • Keep evidence of the violence; it might be used in court later. This includes phone messages, pictures, videos, letters and documents.

And yet, while we can break silence, and do our best to reduce some risk factors, we can’t do it alone. Governments need to invest to make police and judicial services effective; they need to support women and girls, and work with violent men in order to change their violent behavior. Local governments and municipalities have to create safer cities and neighborhoods. Even a supportive neighbor can make the difference.

If society is safer, if women live in a protected environment, if we know we’re not alone in our neighborhoods, if we can trust we will be supported, we can begin to respond to the epidemic of violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed another longtime epidemic, that of violence against women and girls. We all need to respond. Let’s begin with breaking our silence about violence.

In addition to helping lead the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, which fights for information, medication and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga is a 2020 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.

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