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Blog: COVID puts women in tourism-dependent economies at more risk of violence, but it can stop

29 November 2020
By Motselisi Matsela, the Commonwealth’s Economic Adviser

This blog is part of the Commonwealth’s ‘16 Days of Actions’ series, designed to showcase multi-disciplinary national solutions in addressing violence against women and girls. These proven solutions build on the collective experience of the 54 member countries – representing one-third of humanity – which can be replicated elsewhere to create a safer world for every woman and girl. Read the full series here.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, it was clear that the pandemic was not only a health crisis but also an economic threat. Across the world, we saw countries impose unprecedented measures such as lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus, which led to businesses closure, record unemployment, extreme poverty, financial market turmoil and widespread disruptions to travel.

Little did we know that the impact of containment measures and economic pressures would be felt across communities with violence in the homes, particularly against women, rising at an alarming rate.

A worrying reality

A UN report, which assessed the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality outcomes this year, reveals the pandemic has widened existing inequalities in the labour market and unpaid care work. In addition, industries dominated by female workers, such as informal, tourism and retail sectors, have been decimated by the impact.

While we are all in the same storm, the impact of the crisis is not being felt equally. Evidence suggests location, race, socio-economic status and ethnic background also contribute to the risk from the coronavirus and its economic impact.

For instance, if you live in small states like The Bahamas, where 70 per cent of GDP comes from tourism, you are far more likely to be affected by the impact of the pandemic than countries with more diversified economies.

And it is even worse if you are a woman, as experience shows women often tend to be at a disadvantage during crises – financial, health or natural - and that domestic violence tends to increase.

It is therefore critical to consider and respond to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic tsunami, particularly facing women in small, tourism-dependent economies.

Tourism in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is globally famous for its pristine oceanfront and tranquil waters, attracting millions of tourists, which make the region the most tourism-dependent area in the world.

Although Caribbean women occupy low productivity and low earning jobs in the region’s tourism sector, the industry plays an essential role in empowering and supporting women’s livelihoods and businesses. Women own small-scale businesses such as bed and board, and contribute significantly to the tourism value chain.

The Caribbean has successfully managed to keep the worst of the pandemic at bay through an effective containment response. However, the same measures, together with stringent travel and health restrictions, have halted tourism activity and the knock-on effects have shattered businesses and services dependent on the sector. As a result, unemployment, poverty and uncertainty, throughout the region, are on the rise. 

The region is also extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, which adds additional pressure to an already burdened population. All these factors contribute to anxiety and frustration, which can easily spiral into conflict in the homes, with women often bearing the brunt of the disease, economy and disaster. If women do not have a job or income, it also becomes increasingly difficult for them to leave abusive homes.

Tackling the hidden epidemic

About one in three women in the Caribbean has suffered physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, similar to the global prevalence rate.

The pandemic brought an alarming increase to these already worrying statistics, with distress calls to domestic violence helplines rising by up to 300 per cent in some countries, and domestic homicide rates higher than average.

With the pandemic seizing the world’s attention, countries are left with limited resources to make tough choices. Anecdotal evidence shows the virus has impelled governments to direct resources towards fighting the pandemic from domestic violence support services.

It is encouraging to see some governments and organisations have partnered to provide alternative support to victims of domestic violence.

For instance, the Jamaican Ministry of Health and Wellness, together with the Pan American Health Organization, has established a hotline. Calls are handled by well-trained volunteers who not only offer support to victims in need but can also pick up cues to determine whether callers are experiencing violence.

More countries in the region should follow this approach to ensure no woman or girl is left trapped in a helpless situation with nowhere to go.

The Commonwealth Says NO MORE digital portal is also an important resource, which provides victims in the region with critical information, including local hotlines, safety plans and legal guidance, to escape abusive homes.

No doubt, the pandemic has made the tough task of ending violence against women and girls even harder. The greater recognition of this hidden violence demands that response and recovery efforts must not forget those most affected by the impact of the pandemic.

With or without a pandemic, the ever-present threat of violence will loom for women and girls – unless we tackle this scourge the same way we are dealing with COVID-19 and economic recession.

The ‘16 Days of Actions’ blog series is part of the Commonwealth Says NO MORE campaign. Read the full series here, learn more about the Commonwealth’s work on ending violence against women and girls here – and join in the conversation on social media by using #CommonwealthSaysNOMORE.