How to protect women from violence under lockdowns? Send cash.
Domestic abuse has spiked under COVID-19. Cash transfers are no panacea, but they’ve been shown to reduce violence and can be adapted.
Social workers were used to receiving distressing calls before the COVID-19 pandemic. But since South Africa imposed a lockdown on 24 March, the sheer volume of calls and messages to the gender-based violence command centre in Tshwane has skyrocketed.
In the first four days of the national lockdown, calls doubled and data free messages increased more than tenfold. The centre now receives up to 1,000 calls a day from women and children reporting trauma and abuse. The government said last week that gender-based violence has continued to rise as the lockdown goes on.
South Africa had been grappling with violence against women long before the pandemic. The country’s murder rate for women is the fourth highest in the world and nearly five times the global average. However, the pandemic here and many other places has made matters worse.
As the Centre for Global Development explains, a variety of factors may have contributed to a spike in domestic violence. Women and children are more exposed to perpetrators under lockdown. Abusers may exhibit more controlling behaviour due to their loss of feelings of power. And increased food insecurity and other sources of stress may be exacerbating difficult living situations.
Pandemics can also contribute to dangerous coping strategies such as substance abuse, taking on debt and transactional sex, which can make violence against women and children more likely. Meanwhile, the breaking down of normal social relations can lead to increased family separation and an uptick in intra-familial abuse.
Tried and tested
On 1 May, South Africa began to ease some lockdown measures, but many restrictions will continue for some time both there and in many other countries across Africa and the world. Under these circumstances, there are various actions governments can take to better protect women and children. These include expanding shelters and temporary housing; increasing the staffing of response hotlines and outreach centres; and fostering social support networks.
In all this, however, one particularly promising intervention could come in the form of expanding economic safety nets through cash transfers. These programmes have already been shown to be correlated to a decrease in domestic violence. This has been the finding of studies from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, while a World Bank review of 22 different studies in 2018 similarly found that most cash transfer programmes lowered the rate of intimate partner violence.
This could be for a variety of reasons. Cash transfers are widely used as a policy tool for alleviating poverty and food insecurity. However, when given directly to women, they can have the added effect of changing power dynamics within a household. A study in Ecuador found the key factors that led to a decrease in gender-based violence included: decreases in poverty-related stress, leading to fewer arguments and less need for women to ask men for money to buy food; and increases in women’s empowerment, which improved their bargaining power, self-confidence, and freedom of movement.
Cash during COVID-19
Cash transfers could be a crucial tool in reducing gender-based violence during COVID-19 too, though under these specific circumstances, it might necessary to introduce new systems of distribution and criteria for qualification. These will have to be designed carefully for each context and be as responsive to women’s needs as possible.
The mechanisms for delivery will also need to be thoughtfully considered. In South Africa, for example, most women have access to mobile phones, while ATMs are readily available in towns and cities. This could allow for smaller but more frequent and easily accessible transfers. These delivery mechanisms would also allow recipients to receive cash closer to their homes, reducing the need to travel and the risks that come with that. For those without access to these technologies, special assistance will be required.
One particular advantage of gender-sensitive cash transfers during COVID-19 is that it can help circumvent some of the problems observed with food distribution schemes. In South Africa, there have been reports of corruption in the allocation of food parcels at the local level, with some councillors selling items or favouring family and friends. Cash transfers reduce the opportunity for those in positions of power to use controlling behaviour or take advantage of women and children in need.
Cash transfers are by no means a panacea. Like all actions to protect women and children during the pandemic, they would merely be part of a much larger and more comprehensive strategy needed to mitigate the increased risk of violence. Nonetheless, sending money could make the crucial difference to many vulnerable women.
Such programmes are needed urgently. As the Centre for Global Development says, if governments and the international community do not act soon, “women and children will pay the price, both now and in the future”.