Under the Shadow of Covid-19, a Pandemic of Rape

Alexandra de Cramer

AFP photo: Jack Guez

There is the pandemic that we know all about, and another one that is barely acknowledged. Even as Covid-19 forced hundreds of millions around the world to “stay home and stay safe,” many women and girls know that home is far from safe. Mandatory confinement has increased the risk for too many females of domestic and sexual violence, prompting the United Nations to call it a “shadow pandemic.”

In Nigeria, 3,600 rapes were reported during its period under lockdown. That number is a threefold increase from previous years. Rape Crisis Network Ireland has seen a 98 percent rise in the number of rape survivors contacting it for counselling. And in Turkey so far this year, 198 women have been killed allegedly by an intimate partner. A decade ago, there were 130 such murders over 12 months.

The numbers are still coming in, the data still being collated in many countries. But what we have seen so far signals an escalation beyond the already deplorable state of affairs from pre-Covid times. In April last year, UN Women said in a report that “globally, 243 million women and girls aged between 15 and 49 were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months.” The organization’s chief, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, warned at that time that “security, health and money worries” were likely to increase tensions and aggravate abusers.” Little could she have known how much worse it was going to get, how prescient she would prove to be.

But while forced confinement has exacerbated the crisis, the roots of the problem were already deeply entrenched. No number of women’s shelters or victims’ hotlines can fix this. These are after-the-fact responses to the tragedy. The cause of the crisis itself is to be found in misogynistic rhetoric that has been normalized.

And over the past decade, the politics of right-wing demagogues have not helped. Instead, they have spread the misogyny even wider and tamped it more firmly into the soil. The academic Nitasha Kaul, in an essay titled “The Misogyny of Authoritarians in Contemporary Democracies,” explains how women have been used as a bogeyman in political strategies that pose an “other” to an authoritarian savior. Kaul cites the examples of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Such politicking has not only resulted in the devaluation of the role women play in society, but has also paved the way to an increase in domestic and sexual violence against women.

Take Turkey. The AKP party of Erdogan took power in 2002. By 2011, reports of domestic violence and sexual violence against women had risen 1,400 percent. Confronted with this at the time, Erdogan, then the prime minister, said, “They exaggerate when they talk about violence against women.” He also offered this candid view: “I don’t believe in equality of women and men.”

Now, fast forward to this year. On July 1, Turkey completed its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention — a legally binding international treaty that commits signatories to protecting women from all forms of violence. It is no small irony that the convention bears the name of Turkey’s main metropolitan center, where it was signed, and that Turkey was the first country to ratify it in 2012. In withdrawing from the treaty, Erdogan argued it was not reflective of the Islamic values.

A week after Turkey’s withdrawal, at a trial for the murder of a woman named Pinar Gultekin, the accused said in court that he believed “Turkey had done well by withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention.” Cemal Metin Avci is on trial for beating Gultekin, strangling her to death and then cutting up her body into several pieces. He is alleged to have then placed Gultekin’s body parts in a trash can, burned them and then poured concrete over her ashes.

As the prize-winning writer and human rights activist, Asli Erdogan (no relation of the president), puts it, “The Erdogan regime resorts to disproportionate amounts of violence in order to control society. Society learns the lesson that violence is the only way to exert control and that the one in power has the right to dominate. As a result: more violence against women, children, animals.”

Now, imagine all that within a period of high anxiety, stress and millions of people cooped up indoors, some of them — too many of them — among their tormentors and aggressors. When all the numbers and data come in, when we finally learn the toll from this pandemic not just in medical terms but also in enumerated instances of violence — the slaps, kicks, thrust and more — surely we cannot settle for things as they were pre-Covid?

As much as Covid-19 has taught us to plan ahead for more epidemics and pandemics, the shadow pandemic should spur us to offer better protection for women against the misogyny that can morph into the most terrible violence. Yet, I am afraid and saddened to say this: how many people around the world have even heard of the Istanbul Convention?

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.