Editor’s Note: Baroness Patricia Scotland QC, born in Dominica, is secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations. She is the first woman to hold the post. Previously, she was Her Majesty’s Attorney General in the UK (the first woman to hold the post) and served as a minister in Gordon Brown’s governments. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Scientists across the world are working around the clock to supply a vaccine that could halt this devastating pandemic. Yet this deadly virus has once again highlighted how we also desperately need a cure for a completely different disease – one which will sadly outlive Covid-19.
For many terrified women, the fear of a silent virus may pass, but the screams, the beatings and the ever-present threat of violence will remain. Forced coexistence and economic pressures have resulted in domestic violence increasing at alarmingly high rates since the virus entered our lives. Distress calls to domestic violence helplines have risen by up to 300% in some countries, while domestic homicide rates are higher than normal, a pattern playing out across the world.
I have listened to the heartbreaking stories of so many victims over the years in my role as the Commonwealth Secretary-General. They are often asked: “Why did you not leave?” While it may appear that they have a choice to do so, the path to freedom is precarious. Besides physical, emotional and financial abuse, perpetrators often use coercive tactics to control behavior, isolating victims from family and friends, enforcing restrictions on basic necessities and threatening harm if there is any indication of a desire to leave. Victims often find it hard to recognize the abuse until they are in dangerous situations. Their agency is continually eroded under this pressure, leaving them with the feeling that they have no choice but to stay.
Even in normal times, the layers of bureaucracy can also act as barriers to freedom. Victims find themselves asking: “Will the police believe me? How can I attend court? Where will I sleep? Will reporting the abuse make my partner more dangerous? Will I get the custody of my children?” Lockdown and social distancing restrictions have further intensified these anxieties.
So, it is important for our institutions and service providers to create conditions which respond appropriately and sympathetically to the different circumstances of all women before it is too late. Innovations introduced during the pandemic, such as virtual courts, online protection orders, pop-up counseling centers and makeshift shelters, must be shared around the world.
And that’s exactly what we plan to do – flattening the curve of violence in Commonwealth countries.
In partnership with the NO MORE Foundation, the Commonwealth Secretariat has developed a digital portal, featuring easy-to-use tools and resources for governments, community-based organizations and people from our 54 member countries to bring down cases of domestic and sexual violence.
Governments, particularly those with more limited resources, can download toolkits to establish local campaigns which tackle domestic and sexual violence, support victims and those at risk and train community leaders on the ground. The digital portal is specifically designed to help victims understand and recognize violence and give them one-stop access to critical information, including local hotlines, shelters, safety plans and legal guidance.
We have developed guidelines to support citizens in speaking up when they see violence occurring in their circles of family and friends or local communities. The portal will also feature good practice guides for preventing abuse, delivering services and protecting survivors – including model laws on criminalizing coercive control in relationships so that a full history of abuse is investigated rather than as one-off incidents.
We recognize abuse does not stop when women are removed from their abusive homes. Victims need constant support to recover from the trauma and rebuild their lives. Their children also need counseling to change attitudes and behavior developed as a result of witnessing violence between parents. Perpetrators need to participate in special programs to help prevent them from reoffending in the future.
This is why we are accelerating our ongoing work on several fronts in the Commonwealth. We are making a financial case for addressing violence against women by helping countries measure the economic cost if we fail to act – a figure that in 2016 was estimated globally to be some $1.5 trillion. This modeling encourages countries to direct more resources towards preventing violence rather than intervening once it starts. It’s a more cost-effective approach with immediate and long-term benefits at both individual and societal levels.
Additionally, while many countries have laws specifically designed to protect women who are abused, these are not always compliant with international standards. Working with partners, including UN Women, we are providing support for countries to reform such legislation and laws which discriminate unjustly on grounds of gender so that women have equal rights to leave their abusive partners and seek justice. Violence is never justified. Domestic abuse is the betrayal of love and trust. We are working with some member countries to ensure that all victims are protected against domestic violence in all possible ways, including separation, restitution, compensation and even court mandated alimony.
Our homes should be sanctuaries, not prisons. We do not need the gift of seeing into the future to be aware of what is happening in front of us right now. It is time for all of us to stand up, to say NO MORE and to work with resolve and a sense of purpose towards building safer homes and communities in a more just, equal and peaceful world.