July 13, 2020

The Second Pandemic: Domestic Violence and Femicide in Israel During Coronavirus

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

(Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that examines domestic violence issues in the Coronavirus era).

Coronavirus and the Female Experience

As an Israeli feminist scholar and activist, I read the news about the Coronavirus thinking about the experience of women. Much of what is written about women in the Coronavirus era is obvious to anyone who is interested in gender disparities. Women are more susceptible to overburdening by unpaid or underpaid care jobs, household responsibilities, and children. They risk over-working and paying a toll in terms of their health or mental stability, or losing their paid jobs as they try to balance other responsibilities. They are more likely to be exposed to the pandemic risks as women make up 70% of the global healthcare workers, and less likely to have access to adequate personal protection equipment. Finally, I read the news about a second pandemic of violence against women that accompanies the Coronavirus pandemic. While these concerns are generally applicable to any country, I will focus specifically on Israel.

Since the beginning of 2020, 11 Israeli women were murdered by their domestic partners, one was critically injured by her husband, and a ten-month old baby was murdered by her father. Six of the women were murdered in the last two months, since the Coronavirus outbreak in Israel. In addition, four more women committed suicide as a result of the domestic violence they had endured since the pandemic outbreak. Several of the women were Palestinian or recent (Jewish and non-Jewish) immigrants to Israel, two populations over-represented in the victims of femicide in Israel both this year and in the past. But, it is not only femicide that we should worry about. Reports indicate that this past April there was a 16 percent increase in the number of reports of incidents of domestic violence and a 30 percent increase in the reports of domestic sexual crimes. Specifically over the period of two weeks between mid-April until the end of April, the number of reports to the welfare ministry of domestic violence quadrupled, in comparison with the first month of the pandemic lockdown. Wizo, Women’s International Zionist Organization, also reported a 40 percent increase in reports of domestic violence of women. For these women, staying at home during the Coronavirus outbreak was not a safety measure. Home was anything but safe or bearable for them, and the circumstances of high pressure and seclusion increased their vulnerability.

The social problem of femicide has become a concern in Israel, increasing in frequency in the last few years. It has been a challenge to frame it as the social problem that it is, rather than an accumulation of private domestic disagreements that derailed. Public campaigns against femicide changed the discourse that way,  leading to the formation of several committees and a designation of tens of millions of dollars that were never actually transferred to any of the governmental offices responsible for preventing femicide and domestic violence. Instead, the most significant allocation of funding is spent on the incarceration of abusive domestic partners, which is an ineffective measure when it is not accompanied by any meaningful measures of rehabilitation. The result is recidivism – 70% of the men are repeatedly detained for acts of abuse, including some of the men who later commit acts of femicide. To a large extent, the policy of Israel regarding femicide was consistent before and during the pandemic. Both times Israel did little or nothing to prevent violence, protect women, and save lives. The only exceptions were the decisions to open an additional shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence during the pandemic, and the to remove some of the abusers (rather than the victim) from their homes to alternative housing. Also consistent with pre-pandemic behaviors was the public response – many were outraged by the frequency of the acts of femicide, and gathered to protest on several occasions and several locations against the acts of femicide and the failure to prevent them despite the pandemic.

Opportunity for Change?

One of the common catch phrases of this pandemic is that “we are all in this together”. Indeed, nothing quite clarifies the mutual dependency of our times more than this pandemic, which requires us all to #stayathome in order to flatten the infection curve and make sure that medical services are not overburdened. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the pandemic is no great equalizer, but rather that it stresses and emphasizes pre-existing inequalities and disparities. This is true in Israel and in the United States, with respect to racial and ethnic disparities – but also, as this post highlights, with respect to gender inequalities. Femicide and domestic violence existed before COVID 19, and I shared concerns over the racial and ethnic aspects of it, namely the particular vulnerability of Palestinian and (Jewish and non-Jewish) immigrants to femicide and domestic violence. The pandemic did not detract from this being a crucial, pressing social issue, but instead deteriorated the social conditions that make women more vulnerable. Emergency measures around the pandemic did not  plan to address this vulnerability – either with a general plan against femicide and domestic violence or a specific one for the stressful times of the pandemic, thus more women were victimized.

Clearly there can be nothing good about a pandemic that has caused the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands around the globe. This post is about those who suffered or died during the pandemic outbreak but are not a part of its statistics. I think it is important to think about their experience of domestic violence and femicide which to some extent is attributable to the social conditions  facilitated by the coronavirus. By saying that, I do not want to excuse the perpetrators of the acts of violence. They are responsible for their acts of violence and murder, for which there can be no excuse. But the lockdown created an environment in which the female victims were much more vulnerable, far less likely to be seen or heard by others due to the heightened tensions and minimal social interaction of this time. The isolation created limited abilities to cry out for help.

Many have engaged in discussions over the course of the last few weeks since the outbreak regarding what life in the post-corona times – the “new normal” – will be like. Discussions of the “new normal” sometimes mention the shifts in the work-life balance and the added flexibility that the work from home created as potential structural changes in the labor market from which women can benefit. It is now clear that many of us can work from home, a matter that will potentially make it easier for women to navigate the needs of the domestic unpaid work they do with the requirements of the paid work. This could be an equalizer which could potentially diminish the gender pay gap, in a way that anti-discrimination legislation hasn’t been able to. As we have these important discussions about our emerging new lifestyle, it is important to also note that losing opportunities to informally interact with each other carries a risk for women and may come with under-reporting of violence. Homes are often a place for happiness and intimacy, but for some they are unsafe.

To diminish the social problem of femicide, Israel needs to divert resources to it and make the protection of victims of domestic violence a priority. This requires focusing attention on vulnerable women – Palestinians, newcomers, migrant workers and asylum seekers – women that are generally marginalized in Israeli society, but there also needs to be a lookout for women from more privileged groups. As mentioned above, this priority was already decided a few years ago, but never materialized. In the course of the battle against the Coronavirus, Israel formed a unity government with the largest cabinet to date – 32 ministries, incurring heavy costs to an economy in recession, and requiring budget cuts. In this reality, it is hard to imagine much progress is likely to be made on this front. To the extent that the pandemic is also an opportunity to introduce change, this change is likely to be minor for women victims of domestic violence, and continued efforts of the civil society will be required in order to substantially promote this cause.

 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She is a 2018 GCRL Scholar in Residence and an HBI Research Associate. The statistics in the blog are effective up to June 11, 2020. 

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