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COMMENT | Do more to protect women, children from abuse during lockdown

COMMENT | As Malaysia’s Covid-19 cases reach daily record highs, the government has finally announced a lockdown that takes effect between June 1 and 14. Amidst worries of the economic repercussions and calls for a moratorium, we must not forget one of the country's biggest blunders from the first movement control order (MCO 1.0); the lack of preparedness to manage the shadow pandemic, an increase in abuse against women and children.

As a call to action, this article will; 1) explore the harrowing realities and causes of increased abuse against women and children during lockdown and 2) forward two structural policies to ensure government preparedness for this unfortunate inevitability.

Battered women

MCO 1.0 saw a sharp uptick in domestic violence against women. The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), an NGO that provides support for women and children who experience abuse, reported a 360 percent increase in distress calls received between February, pre-MCO time, and April, when MCO was in full swing. Even after the MCO 1.0 was lifted, NGOs have continued to sound sirens of continued intensified domestic violence.

How and why does the lockdown lead to an increased propensity of domestic violence against women? Fundamentally, strict movement control orders lead to potential job losses and financial instability. 

According to the Department of Statistics, the country’s unemployment rate in May 2020, fresh off the heels of MCO 1.0, was a record 5.3 percent. Not only was this the highest recorded rate since 1990, but the unemployment rate has also remained persistently high and has yet to return to pre-crisis levels. 

Coupled with isolation due to movement restrictions, these factors create a high-stress environment where partnerships with existing power imbalances may devolve into mentally and/or physically abusive ones.

Women are also more likely to lose their financial independence during lockdown to shoulder intensified household burdens. A 2020 UN Women report noted that women do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as compared to men. 

With children out of school during lockdown, domestic care needs multiply and more women are forced to forego or scale back their income-generating activities to take on at-home care-giving full time. 

Women’s loss of monetary security reduces their voice in intra-household decision making and fosters economic dependency, which worsens power imbalances within the household.

Abused children

The impact of the pandemic on children extends beyond psychosocial consequences and developmental setbacks. Sharing a household with parental figures faced with dire socioeconomic stress puts children at an increased risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

In 2020 alone, a total of 4,349 cases of child abuse were reported by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. According to Bukit Aman Criminal Investigation Department director Huzir Mohamed, familial disputes, drug abuse, loss of income and stress were among the contributing factors to domestic violence during the pandemic.

Children are also at risk of abuse outside of the household. In April 2020, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) highlighted a surge in internet usage among children amidst the lockdowns and heightened exposure of potential child predation.

This is reflected in the rise in reports of child pornography from 18 to 45 cases after the implementation of MCO 1.0 order in March 2020.

The lack of face-to-face lessons and consultations have also resulted in decreased child contact with adults who play a protective role (eg teachers, therapists and social workers); leaving the effects and perpetuation of abuse unchecked.

To make matters worse, lockdown restrictions have made it increasingly difficult for social workers to deliver appropriate intervention and protection services to children and families in need.

Structural solutions

The risk of heightened abuse during lockdown can be managed by providing support resources for abuse victims and strengthening structures to ensure such cases are caught early. Towards these ends, we urge the government to treat support services for women and children affected by abuse as an essential service and to take action by investing in the relevant agencies and service providers.

Firstly, the government needs to prioritise and expand the capacity of shelters. Shelter capacity is defined by a "family place" which entails space for one adult and the average number of children in a family. 

Presently, Malaysia only has one family place per 70,000 people; this is severely below the international recommended minimum of one family place per 10,000 people. This dismal capacity was worsened when MCO 1.0 failed to list shelters as an essential service.

Shelters are a highly crucial resource as they allow survivors the option to escape abusive households without fears of homelessness and financial insecurity. Shelter capacity should be increased by repurposing spaces, such as empty hotels, or education institutions.

Along this vein, helplines should be promoted to spread awareness and diversified to increase accessibility. The WAO noted sharp increases in abuse-related calls in early April 2020 following public service announcements (PSAs) regarding the helpline. 

Similar action should be executed during this MCO with further steps taken to increase the point of calls through social media and diverse messaging platforms. In-person helpline channels should also be instituted by leveraging pharmacies and clinics to increase access.

Secondly, immediate efforts should be made to strengthen the Social Welfare Department that lies at the crux of effective welfare protection for women and children. 

We must begin by recognising the social service workforce as a profession. The pending Social Work Profession Bill, which is said to be in its final draft stage, is a good first step in this direction. The Bill will require social workers to register with the Malaysian Social Work Profession Council in order to establish a standard for social work in the country.

However, professionalisation alone is not enough when the number of social workers available is not able to meet public need. In December 2020, Malaysia had a ratio of one social worker for every 8,756 Malaysians. This lags far behind our Singaporean neighbour who boasts one social worker for every 3,448 citizens. 

Budget 2021 has already tabled for an additional 8,000 contract employment opportunities for Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. This additional resource should be used to increase specific Social Welfare Department roles including child protection officers, psychological officers and welfare officers.

Finally, an increase in the workforce needs to be coupled with appropriate training and implementation of effective case management procedures. A comprehensive standard operating procedure (SOP) for case management has been created by the Malaysian Association of Social Workers along with Unicef and Maestral International and is easily accessible from Unicef’s website. 

First responders across the social service continuum need to be adequately trained on this SOP to ensure that every case can be managed in a just and timely manner.

These structural solutions not only ensure that women and children are protected from domestic violence during MCO but also continued resource availability post-crisis.

Given the fact that domestic violence is hugely underreported, there is strong reason to believe that the numbers we have seen are an underestimation of the true reality of women and child abuse in Malaysia. 

This time around, we know that the second wave of the shadow pandemic will come. The issue has been shone light upon by stories of women beaten by their partners, survivors jumping out of windows to escape their assailants, and children brought to the hospital with wounded bodies. 

This reality is no longer in the shadows. The brightly lit shadow pandemic is coming and the government needs to act now.

NURUL EZZATY HASBULLAH is a Rhodes scholar in international health and tropical medicine at Oxford University and DR SANDRA CHONG is a doctor with the Health Ministry.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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