Neither War nor a Shadow Pandemic
By Kirthi Jayakumar
The Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres called for a domestic violence “ceasefire” amid “horrifying global surge.” The UN Women declaredthe widespread prevalence and rise in gender-based violence as a “shadow pandemic.” Even as global attention to the rise in the number of cases of domestic violence targeting women is definitely important, and that the highest authorities in the United Nations are addressing it through their rhetoric, the words they’ve chosen are problematic at best. And it matters, tremendously.
The language of war
The call for a “ceasefire” against domestic violence is a patent use of the language of war. It refers to a “temporary suspension of fighting,” in its simplest meaning. In a more detailed examination of the term, one understands that it refers to the temporary stoppage of war, wherein each side agrees with the other to suspend aggressive actions. A successful ceasefire may be followed by peace agreements – but from World War I to today’s Syrian Civil War, one has seen more instances of ceasefire violations and resumption of war than instances of comprehensive peace.
To call for a ceasefire against domestic violence is tremendously demeaning at best. In effect, the Secretary General has called for a temporary suspension of domestic violence. The natural corollary implies that the suspension is temporary, and that the situation may continue. Casually calling for a temporary suspension of a grave threat to the life of the person facing domestic violence does not solve any dimension of domestic violence. Primarily patriarchy and structural violence manifesting in the form of gender-insensitive and inadequate laws, non-responsive or inadequately responsive security sector agents, cultural and, in some households, religious practices, as well as economic and social factors come together to constitute the enabling environment for domestic violence. During times such as an armed conflict, a natural disaster, or something unprecedented like COVID-19 and the lockdown in response to it, the larger socio-political realities enhance the enabling environment. There is an automatic increase in the number of instances of violence in such situations.
By not addressing the structural violence, and relying on war rhetoric, the Secretary General has effectively downplayed the seriousness of domestic violence and structural violence. Domestic violence is not war that you call a ceasefire for. The survivor has no agency in the dynamic, as violence is used to control their minds, bodies, economic capacities, and mobility. It is not a battle that you hold off on to return to later: it is a human rights violation that simply must stop once and for all, instead of a temporary let up.
Shadows and Pandemics
The UN Women chief, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka referred to the rise in domestic violence world over as a shadow pandemic. The use of the word “shadow” in a context like this seems to emulate the use of the word in the context of a shadow report – which stands for an alternative or supplementary report. A pandemic – if COVID-19 hasn’t already made it clear – is a disease that is prevalent over a wide geographic area that could be anything from a country or the world at large. The word pandemic is inherently tied to a disease – which is, like COVID-19, spread by viruses and bacteria. Pandemics allude to diseases that – so long as the pandemic suggest – are uncontainable for various reasons. There may not be a vaccine and/or a cure yet, or there may be a vaccine and/or a cure but it may not be sufficiently available in numbers. At the end of the day, a pandemic disease is not a deliberate product of human conduct, and its spread leaves humanity helpless.
Let’s look at domestic violence. Save for rare (in terms of number) cases of pathology that predispose one toward violence, most instances of domestic violence are a manifestation of attitudes of misogyny, patriarchy, and a sense of entitlement over the bodies of the targeted person. It is a deliberate action that is carried out against a survivor for no logically acceptable reason given that there is nothing that can justify or endorse violence and still be morally right towards all parties involved.
By equating domestic violence to a “shadow” “pandemic,” the UN Women has devastatingly failed the community it strives to serve. Yes, it is “hidden,” but it is not an “alternative.” Yes, one does not see it overtly, but that inability to see it is not the failings of those that are targeted but of the structural violence that has silenced those that face it. Yes, it is widespread and exists across cultures and countries and every other stratification that divides society, but it is not a contagion that humankind is helpless about. Domestic violence can be addressed and brought to an end: it is not idealistic to imagine this reality which may take time, but will certainly arrive. It needs a careful dismantling of structural violence and the development of spaces where equality, peace, and justice thrive.
Without addressing these dimensions, the relegation of domestic violence and gender-based violence to something one can call for a ceasefire in response, or to a shadow pandemic is a painful reiteration that gender-based violence is not a priority for our world leaders. We’re talking about how important it is to stay home and save lives. But what about those whose lives will not be saved because home is not safe?