Q&A with Stellamarina Donato, researcher and Ph.D. candidate at LUMSA University of Rome 

According to the figures provided by UN Women, one woman in three worldwide has suffered physical or sexual violence, mainly perpetrated by an intimate partner or a family member. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of stay-at-home orders, however, data shows a concerning surge in cases of violence against women, specifically domestic violence, and increased difficulties for them in accessing sexual and reproductive health services. 

As authorities around the world have tackled the pandemic by imposing lockdowns and adopting social distance policies to fight the spread of coronavirus and ease the pressure on hospitals and healthcare facilities, women living with violent partners found themselves stuck at home with their perpetrators, unable to access essential resources and support services that meet their needs. I have called on Stellamarina Donato, Ph.D. candidate in “Development and well-being of both the individual and the organizations” at LUMSA University of Rome (Italy), to understand what gender-based violence is, what forms it assumes, how governments have dealt with this global scourge during the pandemic and what measures can be taken to combat and prevent it.

What is gender-based violence? 

Gender-based violence is a deeply rooted social issue and a violation of human rights.

When it comes to defining GBV against women, which is my main field of research, a good starting point is the UN General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 1993, known as ‘The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW)’. The resolution identifies this worldwide phenomenon as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. A crucial point emerges from this formulation; violence against women is a gender issue that can occur in public or private life. After being considered a private issue for a long time, it was formally recognized as a public one as well, a social problem that affects each and every one of us.

However, what we consider to be gender-based violence depends on the theoretical approach we are looking at and the one we want to use as a point of reference. Despite the debate has been mostly about violence against women and gender-based violence, I am focusing on gender-based violence against women (GBVAW). I believe this expression to be more complete because it stresses the gender issue that lies behind the violence, the idea that women have been considered as an inferior part of society, and identifies them as targeted individuals. 

What are its most common forms and who are the main perpetrators?

There are different forms of gender-based violence against women. Just to mention a few, we could refer to physical, sexual, economic and psychological violence. One typology of violence does not exclude the other since they are often connected, linked and occur at the same time. No doubt, one may think that the most prevalent form of violence is the physical one, but that’s just a perception. This happens because it is “more visible” compared to other forms, among them also symbolic violence, institutional violence and online violence. 

Another important aspect to mention is that – in many cases – perpetrators are close to the victim, for instance, they are a partner or a former partner. The fear of having to return to the house where the aggressor lives are one of the reasons why it is even more complicated to report cases of violence. Added to this is the fear of being judged and of not being heard by the competent authorities. However, aggressors can also be strangers, especially when one thinks of group violence and online violence against women.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violence against women?

Male violence perpetrated against women can be exacerbated in times of crisis, especially when it comes to domestic violence and online violence. Since our interactions switch to online platforms, the risk of cyber violence, verbal violence, stalking and unwanted photos increases dramatically. As for domestic violence, lockdowns and movement restrictions have trapped women experiencing violence with their abusers. The high level of stress caused by the confinement, combined with forced cohabitation, has led to more frequent acts of violence. 

Besides, reporting cases of violence during the pandemic has been more complicated because in some countries the services to support women have been closed or permanently shut down. Some states have envisioned helplines, special services – like the “Mascarilla 19” in Spain –, and anonymous app to support the victims but, generally, it hasn’t been an easy task because of the lack of a comprehensive response to the phenomenon in different parts of the world.

You have recently published an article that investigates the level of government responsiveness to gender-based violence against women during the lockdown in Spain and Italy. How have the two countries addressed this issue? 

As explained in the article you mentioned, despite the fact that both governments welcomed the guidelines and the call to action of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to address the ‘horrifying global surge in domestic violence’, the reaction in the two nation-states has been quite different.

“In Spain, this sparked widespread institutional awareness, active participation in movements and involvement of the whole civil society, which helped to develop practices and policies to address GBVAW during the unfortunate confinement. Conversely, Italy decided to limit its actions to inform about the risks of gender-based violence. For example, one tactic was simply leaving behind leaflets in pharmacies on how to recognize GBVAW without creating real responses, such as distributing national and regional funds to respond to the upsurge in intimate partner violence during the pandemic or enabling a protocol of action to report cases of violence – like pharmacies as in the Spanish case. In Italy, as is often the case when policies on VAW are at stake, there was poor integration of approaches and perspectives from multiple sectors of civil society combined with a lack of communication with institutions”. 

Moreover, contrary to what happened in Italy, during the lockdown the Spanish government launched an emergency plan for gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, approved a specific decree and recognized essential services to victims.

In your opinion, what responses should be implemented in these unprecedented times of crisis to provide adequate support to the victims? And what can be done to prevent gender-based violence?

I believe that GBVAW is not an emergency, in the sense that it does not present itself now for the first time in history, but it is in its most critical moment ever. Therefore, I suggest the elaboration of specific national plans, which should be developed on a long-term basis. 

I also think that we already have a strong international declaration on this matter, the Istanbul Convention (2011), that needs to be implemented especially with reference to the 4 Ps approach: prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies. I believe that if states start to abide by this international document most of the situations we see nowadays won’t even have to be mentioned. In particular, with regards to prevention policies, it would be necessary to start with education on women’s rights and human rights from the earliest years of school. States should also provide constant training courses for HR in the workplace (which are still lacking in many countries or, if they exist, they are nothing but a farce). And, still, on prevention policies, courses for the police, judges and relevant departments should be included.

Furthermore, on government responsiveness to GBVAW, another crucial aspect to highlight is women’s participation in the political life of single countries and international bodies because they create awareness on the topic and can exert pressure on the institutions in order to put forward practices and change the current situation. So, especially in the first stage of policies, both women in movements and femocrats are fundamental to prevent and fight GBVAW. In the end, I believe that the debate should include men as well since GBVAW concerns the whole society.

How can individuals contribute to ending gender-based violence?

Individuals can do a lot but I believe in collective action. I am of the opinion that only by creating networks of help and by sharing stories we could start to change the narratives on the topic. GBVAW is a violation of human rights because women’s rights are human rights. It’s imperative to educate the future generations and to train ours to think and behave differently, in a society that has to be based on equity and where gender should not, and never, be an element of discrimination.

If you are experiencing any form of gender-based violence or are concerned about someone’s safety, reach out for help; hotlines, information and support services available in your area are filed here 

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

About the guest speaker: Stellamarina Donato research interests encompass EU-Mediterranean policies with a focus on migration and populism and gender and policies with a focus on women’s rights and gender-based violence against women. She is MC Member (Italy) to Women on the Move COST Action CA19112. She is also a member of “Protagonism and consciousness of the feminine in the new Millennium. The narration of gender violence in a time without utopias” Research Unit at LUMSA University (Italy), and founding member of “Narratives and Social Changes-International Research Group” at University of Salerno (Italy).