The Malta Independent 25 October 2020, Sunday

COVID-19 exposed how women continue to be 'disproportionately affected in society'

Giulia Magri Sunday, 31 May 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, both locally and on a global scale, how women continue to be disproportionately affected; whether with regard to violence, losing their jobs, or not gaining full accessibility to the contraceptive pill, women’s rights activist and lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

“In the ideal post-COVID-19 reality, authorities need to stop throwing the word equality around. Policymakers need to truly see how women are being affected and ensure that the required change takes place. We need to be practical and listen to one another if we genuinely want to reach equality. Women are suffering and I believe that sexual reproductive rights are an integral part of women’s rights and we need to acknowledge that.”

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In light of the pandemic, many individuals have been affected due to the sudden change in their normal daily routine, but in certain cases women tend to carry a heavy burden due to COVID-19. We see this constantly through daily news reports. 80% of applicants for COVID-19 assistance schemes are women. Numerous women’s NGOs shared their fear that lockdown will put victims of domestic violence in more danger. Abortion Support Network has reported that more Maltese women are seeking a means to the procedure amid the pandemic. In more recent news, a number of oral contraceptive pills are noted to be out of stock in pharmacies, which are leaving many women in a difficult situation – especially since the contraceptive pill is not seen as an essential medicine.

Dimitrijevic, who is the Director of Women’s Rights Foundation (WRF), was asked whether the pandemic has worsened the situation for women and girls, or whether COVID-19 has brought about the necessary awareness of these injustices.

 

An increase in domestic violence abuse during COVID-19

“While its been reported that there has not been a spike in domestic violence reports, as a service provider – and I speak on behalf of other service providers for these women – we did actually see an increase in people reaching out to us,” explained Dimitrijevic. She noted that certain women have also expressed that they found it difficult in reaching out to services and that WRF has even set up its own free helpline for women in need.

“Currently, there are women who are not only facing physical and emotional abuse, but also serious financial abuse, not having money or having to stop working. There are women who receive government benefits, and this goes straight to their perpetrators account, so they are completely at a loss.”

Regarding domestic violence cases, in 2018 the Foundation for Social Welfare recorded there were 319 new cases, and the following year the figure doubled to 683.  Dimitrijevic reflected that the increase in numbers is something positive; that it means that there is more awareness being raised and that more women are inclined to go and report.

“Of course, these numbers do not give us the full true picture, but it is highlighting the true reality. The reality that a large percentage of people seeking services are women and that much more needs to be done.”

She said that, while there is the necessary information on services, not enough is being done to protect and prosecute. She said that it is time to improve the training of professionals and educate them to understand what constitutes domestic violence and to understand the trauma a person experiencing violence faces.

“It is not enough that our professionals might have a simple one-off training session or a three-hour seminar on domestic violence. Courts, lawyers, police and social workers need to receive proper training to ensure that these victims get the right protection and justice.”

 

‘Imagine your perpetrator raping you over and over again and being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy’

Prior to COVID-19, women could travel abroad for an abortion, however, due to the travel ban, Women’s Rights Foundation have reported that numerous ‘fake and potentially unsafe’ abortion pills have been marketed online.

“The effect of the travel ban has highlighted just how vulnerable women are and how unjust the total ban on abortion is. COVID-19 has not stopped women accessing abortion, as figures from Abortion Support Network have shown that in April alone, seven Maltese women contacted the Network for help.”

She was informed that Abortion Support Network reported that three of the women who did contact them were due to the fact that their partner raped them continuously. “Could you imagine, you are facing abuse, you are facing the difficulties of COVID-19, and your perpetrator rapes you over and over again, and then you are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy? We need to talk about the pain, the anguish that these women continue to suffer in this country.”

 

‘Beyond ridiculous that the contraceptive bill is only seen as a means of birth control’

“Fuming” was Dimitrijevic’s reaction to the news that certain contraceptive pills have been out of stock for months now.

“It is beyond unimaginable that women have to suffer in this manner,” she said. Many women take the contraceptive pill as a means of medication to control their menstrual cycle and polycystic ovary syndrome and not simply as a form of birth control. “How can the authorities say that the medication these women need is not in stock and how is it that it is not an essential medicine?”

She said that it is beyond ridiculous that the contraceptive pill is not seen as an essential medication and that it must be made available constantly and consistently.

“I cannot imagine how difficult a time it is for women who are in prostitution, and I am certain that they have not stopped working.”

The discussion of how COVID-19 has affected prostitutes has been reported in numerous international reports, yet there has been no mention of how prostitutes are being affected on a local scale. “Prior to COVID-19, there was the ongoing debate on prostitution and human trafficking, but since then we have not heard anything,” she noted.

She said that she could imagine that women in prostitution are still currently working, and that it could be difficult for them to stop or to even report to the police. “I think about this often, and from our own survivors we are aware of how hard it is to report to the police, and probably this COVID-19 situation has made it just as hard.”

 

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