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Rethinking Home - Jelke Boesten - Background ;

Rethinking Home

Feminist Perspectives
Jelke Boesten

Professor in Gender and Development

11 June 2021

Staying at home is suddenly a profoundly public act; a public good to protect society from spreading disease. As such, the policy response to the pandemic has delivered a feminist site of blurred boundaries between public and private spheres requiring a collective examination of the relation between and value of productive and reproductive labour.

‘Staying at home’ has magnified the gendered inequalities in reproductive labour. Women do more housework, carry the load of caring, are overrepresented in paid care work (nursing, social work, education), and their productive labour is often precarious and lower paid then men’s. Single parents, disproportionately women, are once again confronted with the sheer impossibility of doing everything alone without broader social support, highlighting the impossibility of ‘home’ as being one household that must contain productive and reproductive labour. Furthermore, lockdown has also exposed the myth that home is a safe place for everyone, that we are able to stay at home to be safe. As Nadja Al-Ali wrote in April 2020, social distancing and staying at home is a policy of privilege.

Immediately in March 2020, it became clear that quarantine had a very negative side effect; domestic violence increased. UN Women called it a ‘Shadow Pandemic’. This increase in emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, largely perpetrated by men against their intimate partners and with serious knock-on effects on children, is observed in both wealthier and poorer countries. A new report from Refuge UK confirmed that calls to its helpline increased by 61% in 2020. Women murdered by partners or ex-partners doubled between mid-March and mid-April 2020 compared to the previous year. In Hubei province, one ‘police department reported a tripling of domestic violence cases in February 2020 compared to February 2019’ (Roesch et al 2020).

The consensus is that lockdown does not cause such violence but intensifies it; in ‘normal times’, globally 30% of women experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime. This ranges from 20% of women in Europe to 50 % in Oceania. Whilst domestic violence is not caused by lockdown measures, patriarchal configurations of gendered power relations have very harmful effects on intimate relationships, and hence, homes. For example, in Peru, calls to the domestic violence hotline doubled in the first months of lockdown. Femicide - the murder of women because they are women – also showed a slight increase from previous years, although it is difficult to know the real number of women killed. Powerful conservative and religious organisations tend to blame girls for pregnancy, blocking comprehensive sex education and access to sexual and reproductive rights for teens. However, increased numbers of child pregnancies during the pandemic as girls have stayed at home, confirms what feminist organisations have long shouted from the roof tops; the majority of underage pregnancies are in fact the result of sexual abuse in homes.

Most disturbingly, a year into COVID restrictions, we can assess the damage of sexual abuse and violence by also looking at underage pregnancies. Despite searching for reliable comparative statistics online, Saskia Riera Zielińska (King’s College, London, PhD Student) and I were unable to find any. Live births amongst under-tens is the only reliable measure we were able to obtain. In Peru, there were 26 live births to girls under ten, more than triple the number of previous years. Of course, children under ten being able to gestate successfully is rare. Amongst 11-14 years old, there were 1,155 live births, and among teens aged 15-19, there were 47,369 live births. The scale of sexual abuse and violence will therefore be much larger than is reported in official statistics; as well as the number of pregnancies, miscarriages, illegal abortions, related deaths among abused children.

Perhaps most surprisingly, during lockdowns as well as between them, women and girls continued to disappear. In February 2021 alone, 450 women and girls disappeared whilst Peru was largely in lockdown. During 2020, the Peruvian police recorded 5,552 missing women and girls, whilst an independent civil society organisation monitoring disappearances claims that 11,828 women and girls disappeared. It is impossible to disaggregate how many of these women and girls were trafficked or killed by criminals and how many were murdered and buried by intimate partners. However, we do know that just as homes are not safe for women and girls, the streets are also not safe particularly in a highly militarised social distancing regime as in Peru. A recent case, for example, revealed the involvement of police in trafficking, abuse and killing of women in southern Peru. This is not unique to Peru but is linked to the idea of ‘security’ as something that needs policing. Lockdown has therefore been reinforced through masculine, armed, and militarised responses, in defence of the patriarchal organisation of society.

So why has lockdown intensified domestic violence? Research shows that violence in homes increases because women are not able to use their normal everyday strategies to avoid and diffuse violence. For example, they cannot seek refuge at critical moments and are often cut off from support networks such as family and friends. Men, in turn, do not have external outlets for their frustrations. These frustrations have increased due to all known effects of lockdown, including reduced employment, and reduced income, and limited space (Roesch et al 2020).

One of the main problems of intimate partner violence during lockdown is the reduced accessibility of reporting and support services. Firstly, spending 24-7 with an abusive person likely limits one’s freedom to communicate with others, be that in-person or via other means. Hence, in South Africa there was a notable decrease in reports of violence in the first lockdown, indicating not less violence, but less opportunity to seek help. Civil society organisations and governmental units in some states adopted creative strategies to provide women with options to report violence. This included special telephone lines, WhatsApp, and other online reporting systems, and even code words for sounding the alarm in pharmacies. In most countries, however, such innovative reporting services could not replace the reduced capacity or even closure of vital frontline services such as rapid response units, family courts, policing services, and healthcare services. So even if you could call someone, where do you go from there?

COVID-19 lockdown policies to manage the pandemic have shown the tremendous harm that ‘home’ and family as cornerstone of patriarchal societies do to women and girls. Staying at home became the profoundly public act to keep the community safe; a public good to protect society from spreading disease. A way forward would be to recognise that ‘home’ is not a safe space because of the walls and patriarchal security that encloses it, but because of the care and collective safety it might provide. Perhaps post-COVID we need to approach home as a public good for and by the community. Communities of care cannot only provide collective childcare, and food for those in need – strategies poor Peruvians as well as other women’s groups in Latin America have deployed in times of crisis. They must develop safe spaces and systems of accountability for and with each other. Fundamentally, we need to rethink what security is from a feminist perspective, considering that the main threats to life and wellbeing do not come from other states, nor from criminals or strangers lurking in corners, but from people we trust within our families and communities.

About the author

Professor Jelke Boesten is a Professor of Gender and Development at King’s College, London. Jelke’s current research focuses on transformative gender justice in post conflict societies –the idea that interventions to address gendered injustice, such as violence against women and girls, should aim to transform the social, political, and economic relations that underpin the possibility of violence. She recently finished a collaborative project exploring the transformative potential of memorial arts and symbolic reparation. The project’s book, Gender, Transitional Justice and Memorial Arts: Global Perspectives on Commemoration and Mobilization, co-edited with the University of Cape Town’s Dr Helen Scanlon, came out in May 2021. She is currently working on a British Academy-funded research project with Peruvian veterans of the Internal Armed Conflict (1980-2000) which seeks to understand veterans’ perspectives on perpetrating gendered violence in and beyond armed conflict.

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Jelke  Boesten

Jelke Boesten

Vice Dean (Research), interim, SSPP

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