By Elsa Marie D’Silva, Rotary Peace Fellow alumna,     ……      During the lockdown enforced due to COVID-19, I have been reaching out to all my friends to see how they are doing. The other day I happened to call one of my girl friends who I know has been in an abusive relationship to find out if she was fine. She answered my call and we exchanged pleasantries. In the midst of the conversation she suddenly went quiet and then started to talk in riddles. I immediately sensed that all was not right and asked her if her partner was around. She could not even answer with a “yes” or “no” and so I quickly reassured her that I understood her situation and we could communicate further on WhatsApp.

This is not an unusual incident. Many women and girls are experiencing domestic violence – physical, mental, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse by an intimate partner. Due to the extended circumstances of forced lockdown with no other form of access to the outside world and in quite a few cases a phone or internet, the number of cases are spiking all over the world.

Christophe Castaner, France’s Interior Minister has reported that the number of cases of domestic violence has gone up by 36 percent since the country went into lockdown on 17 March. While the National Domestic Abuse helpline in the United Kingdom has recorded an increase of 25 percent in calls and online requests for help. In India too, there has been a surge in complaints forcing the National Commission for Women to start a WhatsApp helpline.

Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic like the coronavirus to expose another pandemic – gender based violence. Global institutions including The United Nations, The World Bank and even the World Health Organization have labeled it as a pandemic since at least one in three women around the world experience some form of violence in their lifetime.

In fact recently, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has appealed for “peace at home.” He said, “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”

My organization Red Dot Foundation has been working on sexual violence prevention for the last seven years. Through our crowd mapping platform we have been encouraging people to document their experiences in public spaces. With this surge in domestic violence, we have launched a new campaign to collect data on this particular form of violence. We have learned that the lack of data makes the issue invisible and in a way, neglected by city authorities.

COVID-19 is forcing local and national governments to think of remedial measures to find survivors the help they need. Imagine in a lockdown scenario, with no public transport available to you or travel passes for leaving your home or your abuser watching every move or call you make, the options are few. Just like my girlfriend was not able to communicate her situation to me, many women and girls are staying silent, locked up with their abusers. So we need to find new ways to deal with this violence and think out of the box to find solutions.

It is essential that everyone understands the issue as we all can be active interveners to prevent this violence. The lockdown is meant to be a proactive measure to help flatten the curve of the transmission of COVID-19, it is definitely not meant to be an enabler of violence. So let’s do our part to be better first-level responders by understanding the nuances of domestic violence and how we as individuals and communities can prevent it.

The Rotary Peace Fellowship Alumni Association held a webinar on Protecting the Vulnerable During COVID-19 to discuss how peace fellows and Rotarians can prevent and respond to this violence. Watch a recording of the webinar.