We knew what would lie in the shadows.
We knew because we’d been told: in whispers and warnings.
The pandemic of gendered violence had long been raging in the Caribbean. National prevalence surveys conducted by UN Women Multi-Country Office Caribbean showed a high incidence rate of Intimate Partner Violence perpetuated against women in heterosexual relationships. In the earliest days of the pandemic, when lockdowns loomed and eventually became a reality, those who worked with victims and survivors of gender-based violence feared the worst would come.
And it did.
Trinidad and Tobago noted a startling 119% increase in call volume to the National Domestic Hotline for the period January to October 2020. Barbados marked a 38% increase in domestic violence reports during the lockdown, many of which were intimate partner violence. Regional data found that countries surveyed showed an above 10% increase in respondents experiencing domestic violence since the pandemic (IDB, 2020).
Gender-based violence in all its forms, including IPV, incest, sexual coercion and harassment – is a deadly disease, causing the loss of life, reduced economic opportunities and full autonomy. This reality makes it tempting to see GBV as a separate occurrence of harm; rather, experiences of gendered violence are embedded in the many ways that women’s inequality persists in our societies, particularly in times of crisis.
Take for instance, women’s instability in our local economies. Many women are employed in the informal and hardest-hit sectors such as sales, domestic, hospitality and tourism sectors. These high-risk sectors account for about 56.9% of female employment and 40.6% of male employment in Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, 2021). Tourism was one of the hardest hit sectors by the pandemic, and in the Caribbean, this sector accounts for 11.9% of female employment and 5.7 % of male employment in the Caribbean subregion. A closer investigation into the sector would also show us that women tend to predominate in low-wage jobs in the tourism industry. Over 50 per cent of women lost their jobs permanently or temporarily during the first few months of the pandemic. These losses mostly occurred in sectors such as trade, personal services, hotels and restaurants and education. Even when people returned to work, the unemployment gap between men and women was about the same.
This precarious economic position means that women are less likely to have the means to save for a rainy day. It also means financial vulnerabilities may cause them to remain in unsafe situations. Furthermore, the enforcement of social distancing measures placed households under severe pressure. For those who were already in fear of violence, shelter-in-place orders meant no reprieve in an escape to work or school. Women who sit at multiple intersections, such as those with disabilities, faced unique challenges, making lockdown even more harrowing. Some types of violence experienced by women and girls with disabilities during the pandemic included threats of harm when assistance is requested and the withholding of needed assistance due to disability and involuntary institutionalisation.
Nongovernmental organisations working with women and girls have long been aware of the links between financial autonomy and intimate partner violence. As noted by Renelle Sarjeant in our NGO Policy Trends magazine (2022), organisations such as Scarred not Shattered, the Barbados Association of Nongovernmental Organisations (BANGO) and Soroptimist International of Barbados mobilised around financial empowerment initiatives, as well as direct assistance to families in need.
“For women who faced eviction from apartments or attempted to leave violent situations, Scarred not Shattered tried to source financial resources to pay their rent, buy food, and pay bills or helped to identify alternate housing solutions. BANGO mobilised beds for women who had to move due to domestic abuse. Beds were given to women who had moved out of the home they shared with their partner and moved back to their parents or moved in with friends and other families. BPW continued to operate its shelter for battered women, with staff called upon to supervise the online learning of children in the shelter. Multiple organisations provided clothing and food packages to women who left their marital or spousal homes with only the things on their backs and economically vulnerable families” (Sarjeant, 2022, 17).
Unfortunately, national decision-making bodies have not kept pace with ensuring that women’s particular needs are centred in responses to crisis.
Again, UN Women Caribbean (2021) revealed that women were underrepresented in bodies that were convened to focus on economic recovery. For example, “In Trinidad and Tobago, only three women sat on the 22-person Roadmap to Recovery Committee. In Jamaica, six women sat on the committee of 27” (ibid, 22). Most laudably, countries like Barbados and St. Lucia came close to half of its representatives on similar entities being women. Similarly, there was little to no engagement with experts in gender and development. Collaborating with specialists in this field can allow policymaking to be equitable and attuned to the various needs of women and men in the country.
Thankfully, there is still time to right this wrong, and CPDC stands ready to support and guide regional governments in charting a gender-just and sustainable path to post-COVID development. CPDC also calls on all development agencies and donors to increase their support to women-led grassroot organisations, particularly shelters for survivors running from sexual and intimate partner violence, and those who provide emergency services to victims in need. Donor budgets must also make considerations for the human and infrastructural resources that make GBV work possible and sustainable. Finally, there will always be a space for the increased gender sensitive trainings for the whole of society, but especially people on the frontlines, such as medical service providers, disaster relief and response teams and law enforcement.