Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Domestic violence soared in lockdown – but we can stop this hidden pandemic

Protesters in New York denounce violence against women and girls.

Protesters in New York denounce violence against women and girls. Image: Reuters/Mike Segar

Penny Abeywardena
Commissioner for International Affairs, Mayor's Office, City of New York
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• COVID lockdowns trapped many domestic violence victims with their abusers.

• New York prioritized opening family justice centres where victims could access help.

• Exchanging best practice is the best way of accelerating policy impact.

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all,” US First Lady Hillary Clinton declared in September 1995. Twenty-five years ago, global leaders committed to meaningful action when they adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to address gender equality and human rights for girls and women. The call to action sought to take on such issues as poverty, education and training, health and violence, among others.

We have made some meaningful progress in the ensuing years, but COVID-19 pulled back the curtain, yet again, on the inequities at every level of society. The glaring disparities in healthcare and digital access are hard to ignore as headlines continue to reveal the disparate rate of deaths in New York City’s Black and Brown communities.

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Yet perhaps one of the most troubling trends to make the headlines was the significant rise in domestic violence. As the coronavirus surged through New York last spring, lockdowns meant victims were trapped at home with their abusers. In the spring and summer, NYC’s domestic violence agency saw their caseloads double.

In the US, one in four women experience sexual violence, physical abuse and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. In New York, our domestic violence hotline receives an average of 251 calls per day. But we all know these numbers simply do not tell the full story. The reality is that incidents of violence against women are woefully underreported.

As we head into the winter months, another lockdown looms. Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I call on local and national governments here in the US and around the world to learn from NYC’s experience when we were the epicentre of the pandemic to take meaningful action with immediate access to resources and services for victims.

In NYC, we have been strategic and innovative as we’ve tackled domestic and gender-based violence. From day one, the De Blasio administration made opening family justice centres in each borough a top priority. These centres are one-stop shops where survivors can access a variety of free confidential health and social services in one place. Due to COVID-19, these services have successfully shifted online while shelters remain open with full safety precautions taken for staff and victims.

US intimate partner violence rates
US intimate partner violence rates Image: NISVS

COVID-19 has done unspeakable damage, but we also see it as an opportunity to rebuild and recover better. I am a member of arguably one of the city’s most important taskforces: the Taskforce for Racial Inclusion and Equity. Since launching earlier this year, we have focused on policies and programmes that ensure our city’s most vulnerable is a priority as we reopen and rebuild. For example, we forged a partnership with the Mayor’s Fund, the Mayor’s Office to Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and the non-profit Sanctuary for Families to launch a pilot programme to deliver micro-grants to domestic violence survivors.

As host to the largest diplomatic corps, we know that exchanging best practices beyond borders is how we accelerate the impact of policies in our communities. Through our Global Vision-Urban Action programme, we have hosted site visits for the diplomatic community to illustrate our local success on global issues like gender equity. Last February, we curated one such visit to the Manhattan Family Justice Center to share ideas with the international community on how to end domestic and gender-based violence. As we all had to switch to virtual engagements, it was an honour to bring New York's Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and a survivor to brief the UN’s Deputy Secretary-General and her global leadership team on what has worked in the city, especially as we had to pivot to less in-person engagement. It’s these local-to-global exchanges that we know will have immediate impact.


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While the statistics on this issue are overwhelming, we will not stop. So, on this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as it states in the Beijing Declaration, let us dedicate ourselves to “enhancing further the advancement and empowerment of women all over the world, and agree that this requires urgent action in the spirit of determination, hope, cooperation, and solidarity”. Let’s use every platform we have to make change.

This article first appeared in The Female Quotient.

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