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In their own heartbreaking words: How lockdowns left abused women living in terror

The lockdown, meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19, places women living with abusive partners in harm's way, a new study has found.
The lockdown, meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19, places women living with abusive partners in harm's way, a new study has found.
Image: 123RF/meeruf

The Covid-19 lockdown has left women at high risk of domestic violence, a new study has found.

The study, “I will rather be killed by corona than by him…", was published in the journal PLoS ONE on Thursday.

It was conducted by the SA Medical Research Council's Bianca Dekel and Naeemah Abrahams, who interviewed 16 women living in domestic violence shelters in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

The study was prompted by a UN prediction in April 2020 that the pandemic would have a “calamitous” impact on women’s lives.

There were concerns “about an upsurge in intimate partner violence (IPV) arising from increased opportunities for relational conflict due to forced coexistence and therefore additional time spent with abusive partners”.

The researchers said the shelters they visited were selected because they provided a racially diverse sample as well as women geographically dispersed within SA, and from both urban and rural areas.

“Despite women coming from different racial groups, they had similar demographic profiles, living in communities where socioeconomic hardships were common,” said Dekel and Abrahams.

All the women they spoke to reported financial difficulties before the pandemic and “described their communities as plagued by violence and crime, poor policing, gangs, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence”.

The researchers, from the MRC gender and health research unit, said: “Most of the women tearfully explained how tough it was to be forced (as per government regulations) to self-isolate with their abusers ...”

Every little thing I did made him mad. I have never been so stressed in my life

A 21-year-old Gauteng woman said she thought her abusive partner would kill her when she was stuck with him during the lockdown. 

“It was horrible. I can’t even explain. Like this man couldn’t go to work or anywhere and also me I couldn’t,” the woman said. 

“So, we were both stuck at home and we didn’t want to be there every day, day in and day out. We were on top of each other. Every little thing I did made him mad. I have never been so stressed in my life. I felt like I was gonna die from stress.”

The researchers said home isolation for women in abusive relationships meant being trapped, often without support, with a violent man who may become even more violent due to curtailed social activities.

“Quarantine also presents abusers with an increased opportunity to inflict harm as they know that women and children have significantly reduced access to their support networks,” they said.

“In fact, the Covid-19 lockdown is subjecting abused women to a compounded, veiled and unspoken lockdown as such women tend to already be exposed to controlling behaviours, which involve, for example, the prevention of seeing friends and family; while some women are not allowed to work, or to leave the house, suffering the risk of being abused if they do.

With the lockdown ... you must stay inside and take each and every one of your beatings

“Indeed, lockdown is a crucial aspect of the Covid-19 public health emergency response, yet it magnifies the risk for increased IPV, which may further challenge an already fragile SA healthcare system.”

Most of the women told the researchers the lockdown restrictions deprived them of their escape strategies.

“Before the lockdown, after he beat me, I could go outside and take a walk and cry and come back when I stop crying,” said a 41-year-old woman from the Western Cape.

“Or if I see he is gonna beat me, I can maybe quickly run outside and hide in the bush and come back when he’s sleeping.

“But with the lockdown, there was none of that. You must stay inside and take each and every one of your beatings. You can’t even escape one beating.” 

As the abuse worsened, the women feared for their lives and sought refuge.

“He used to beat me before corona, while I was still pregnant. You know, he dragged me from the lounge to the bedroom by my hair while I was pregnant with a big stomach,” a 32-year-old woman from Gauteng said.  

The women said the abuse they suffered worsened during the lockdown.

“Before corona, he used to beat me and that’s it and I will get up and go and wash myself or whatever,” said a 36-year-old from KwaZulu-Natal.

“I noticed during the corona lockdown that the beatings definitely got worse. During corona, it was the first time that I really thought to myself, ‘geesh, he is really going to kill me'.

“It is the first time the idea of being killed entered my mind. Like, during the corona lockdown, it was the first time he beat me and then after that went to fetch a rope and tried to hang me.”

During corona, it was the first time that I really thought to myself, ‘geesh, he is really going to kill me'.

The women said stress increased in their homes due to job losses, added parenting responsibilities and limited access to alcohol and cigarettes.

Explaining why the abuse got worse, one of the women said: “I think it is because we didn’t have money ... with the lockdown I couldn’t work. So, there was no money and no money now for his drug.”

Even children’s noise triggered abuse during the lockdown. One woman said: “He couldn’t buy cigarettes and alcohol, remember? So, he was very cross. Also, my kids couldn’t go to school during the lockdown and now they were at home and bored and making a noise the whole day and he was just getting cross every day.

“He was getting crosser and crosser every day and I was getting stressed every day. 

“I didn’t even have money for transport to leave him. Also, now if I leave him, do I take my kids with? Then what if they get corona? Or do I leave them with him, but who will look after them? I had all such thoughts. It was very hard.”

Some of the families starved for the first time. “With the virus, there was no work, it was the most difficult time of my life. This was the first time ever I was without work,” said a 30-year-old from Gauteng.

My husband ... would eat the last bit of rice, even though it was not his

“Before lockdown, my children had never skipped supper, even if it was only an egg with two slices of bread. But during lockdown, there were times my children ate nothing. It was just too much. I can’t explain that stress to you. 

“You know what made it worse? My husband never cared. He would eat the last bit of rice, even though it was not his. I would go and beg for some rice to give the children and then he would eat it. When I looked to give it to the children, there was nothing.

“I had nobody, no family, you understand ... I was alone in the house with an abusive man and my children. It was very tough.”

The government’s restriction of movement did not help, said the 46-year-old Western Cape woman.

“I don’t have a car and remember we needed permits to travel and I didn’t have one. I didn’t even know if taxis and buses were coming to my area,” she said.

“Remember the army was also out there. It was very scary. I felt like I was going to be arrested if I was walking so I felt stuck. It made me stressed and depressed.”

One women said she eventually left her kids with a domestic worker and “ran away with a bag of clothes. I hid next door and then the neighbour found me a shelter by googling for me and taking me there. It was so hard to leave my kids, but I had to. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to save myself because he was threatening to kill me.”

Another said: “There is a policewoman that lives in my road. She knows me well. She could see I was in an abusive relationship and ... said to me if I ever need help, I must come to her. So, the one night I couldn’t take it any more and I just ran to her house crying. So, she did phone her people at the shelter and then she did bring me here.”

The abusive partners also used Covid-19 to instil fear in the women.

It was so hard to leave my kids, but I had to. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to save myself because he was threatening to kill me

“He would tell me, ‘if you walk out that door, you gonna get corona and die.’ He would tell me that every day. And what must I believe? Because they are saying on the news that it is so, so I was believing him. I wasn’t thinking he is trying to control me, you know?” said a 25-year-old from the Western Cape.

“So I stayed until I couldn’t any more. I stayed until I thought. 'OK let me rather walk out that door and get corona and die, then he can’t beat me any more at least'.”

The 24-year-old woman from KwaZulu-Natal said she was afraid of leaving because she feared quarantine. “We were quarantined for 14 days at the shelter and that was scary. Before I left, all I was thinking to be honest, was that it is very scary out there because of corona. It was just scary to be honest, but I did not let corona stop me.” 

She said she then decided to throw caution to the wind. “Eventually, I decided now is the time for me to do something about my life, coronavirus or not, now is the time. I just stopped caring; I was just too scared of my children’s father,” she said.

The women told the researchers that fear of their male partners outweighed their fear of contracting Covid-19.

“It was very frightening to leave during corona, because of the fact of the virus itself. I am also a chronic patient, so I have higher risks,” said a 52-year-old from the Western Cape.

I will rather be killed by corona than by him, because if I stay here, he will kill me

“But my fear didn’t stop me from leaving. It didn’t frighten me enough to not leave the relationship. Because, the first thing that came into my mind was, I will die in this relationship.

“I could die out there of corona, but I would rather take my chances with that. I will rather be killed by corona than by him, because if I stay here, he will kill me, so I will rather take my chances with corona.”

The researchers urged the government to bear women in mind in its endeavours to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“This is especially important as we prepare for multiple waves of the virus. There needs to be a strong effort to ensure IPV safeguards are integrated into Covid-19 measures,” said Dekel and Abrahams.

“The UN secretary-general highlighted the need to integrate protections for women during Covid-19. Specifically, all Covid-19 response plans need to address the impact of this pandemic on women and placing women at the heart of the response effort will ensure better and more sustainable development outcomes and support a faster recovery.

“Thus, given SA is a member state, this is a call to action for the SA government.”

TimesLIVE

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