Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a devastating rise in violence against women and children in Asia, according to a new report.
- Economic pressure can lead to a rise in child marriage
- The Philippines reported an increase in online child sex abuse
- Experts say violence against women can be hard to measure
The ‘Because We Matter’ report, released today by Plan International Australia and Save the Children, shows a disturbing increase in online abuse, highlighting that children were more exposed to cyberbullying, harmful content and sexual exploitation during lockdowns.
Aid groups fear the economic impact of the new coronavirus could also lead to an increase in child exploitation and child marriage, unravelling years of progress.
“Violence against children, and girls in particular, has long been a silent emergency that is now threatening to escalate dramatically,” the report reads.
The number of online sex abuse perpetrated against children in the Philippines more than tripled during the pandemic, according to the Department of Justice.
Between the start of March and the end of May, some 279,166 online child sex abuse cases were recorded, compared to 76,561 in the same time period the year before.
In Thailand, recorded cases of domestic violence almost doubled between February and April, according to government figures.
“During this pandemic, I have received many complaints from girls, boys, and young people about their struggles at home such as stress, exploitation, domestic violence, and child marriage,” Suci, the chairperson of Kediri Village Child Protection Group in Indonesia, told report authors.
“The inequality that we’ve been fighting against all these years resurfaced.”
Isolation compounded by lockdowns
Kristin Diemer is a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne who has worked on the kNOwVAWdata initiative to measure the prevalence of gender-based violence in Asia and the Pacific.
Dr Diemer said people living in remote villages in countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines had their isolation compounded by the pandemic.
“And so you take away maybe the one avenue of safety.”
She told the ABC violence against women during the pandemic was difficult to measure — some organisations reported a chilling silence as some women were confined with perpetrators and not able to reach out for help.
At the same time, an increase in calls to helplines could be an indication that the severity of violence had led more women to seek support, Dr Diemer added.
“That’s really a positive note … to highlight the fact that women are being resourceful.”
She added that during lockdowns children were witnessing and being exposed to more domestic violence, since they were not at school or able to visit friends, and that lockdowns had seen an increase in people accessing online pornography.
“This then leads to an increase in demand which can translate through to an increase in child exploitation for the purposes of online pornography,” she said.
Economic strain could see rise in child marriage and exploitation
Huu, a high school student from Vietnam, said she knew two girls who had married during the pandemic.
Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena said the situation in the Asia Pacific was “incredibly dangerous” and urged urgent action from governments.
“COVID-19 has affected all of us, but for the world’s most vulnerable, it’s a living nightmare,” she said.
“Economic pressure on families from the pandemic also heightens the potential of girls being exploited for economic reasons, either through early and forced marriage or by being exploited for sex.
The United Nations Population Fund has predicted the still-emerging impacts of the pandemic could see an additional 13 million child marriages and 2 million cases of female genital mutilation over the next decade.
Another report released yesterday by UN Women revealed how COVID-19 may be reversing some gains towards Sustainable Development Goals in countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Thailand.
The ‘Unlocking the Lockdown’ report focused on the gendered effects of the pandemic, finding 53 per cent of women had seen their work hours reduced, compared to 31 per cent of men.
Women shouldered most of the burden of unpaid domestic work during lockdowns, and 66 per cent of women had seen COVID-19 impact them financially, compared to 54 per cent of men.
The report said the pandemic had also triggered a mental health crisis in the Asia-Pacific region, with job losses and gender-based violence causing higher rates of stress in young women, according to Mohammad Naciri, UN Women regional director for Asia and the Pacific.
“More women are seeing their mental health affected and are having more trouble seeking medical care and accessing medical supplies,” he said.
“Having this data is critical to inform emergency responses. Otherwise, we are making our decisions blindfolded.”
Domestic violence is a pressing issue in Australia, too. An Australian Institute of Criminology report published last week surveyed 15,000 Australian women about domestic violence during the first stages of the pandemic.
“Two-thirds of women who experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former cohabiting partner since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic said the violence had started or escalated in the three months prior to the survey [in May].”
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and the Philippines Department of Justice have been approached for comment.