The lasting impact of social distancing measures for gender equality: a look at Viet Nam.

Author: Anaïs Julin

Gender-based violence (GBV) is expected to rise in every type of emergency – whether economic crises, conflict or disease outbreaks. With the COVID-19 pandemic, economic and social stress coupled with pre-existing gender inequalities and discriminatory social norms led to an exponential surge in GBV but most importantly a setback in the quest for gender equality. lIlustration: domestic violence under screen in.

Viet Nam -UNODC 2014. Higher rates of domestic violence amid pandemic-induced lockdowns were reported in many nations across the world. In March 2020, the UN Trust Fund conducted an emergency report estimating cases of domestic violence to have increase globally as a consequence of lockdown with impressive rises by more than 30% in France, Cyprus and Singapore – see figure below. This was the initial assessment as most countries were in the midst of lockdown measures. Six months into the crisis, a second assessment indicates that movement restrictions and economic insecurity still drive a rise in gender-based pressures. Far from being on the low, violence against women and girls seems to have spurred as countries exited lockdowns from the persistence of health, economic and security tensions.

Unlike previous economic crises, the Covid-19 crisis is set to negatively affect women more than men, resulting in a significant blow for gender equality. It could result in a huge setback from the progress made over the past 30 years in the quest for gender equality. Usually carrying the highest burden of housework, women have been bearing most of the epidemic-related costs entailed by movement restrictions, school closures, and stay at home policies (Alonso et al. 2019, Alon et al. 2020). What could have been expected to be only a short-term lockdown become phenomenon issue could result in a persistent step-back for gender equality and women empowerment.

In the next section, I will analyse the case of Viet Nam, a country that experienced lockdown for a short period in April 2020 while facing huge repercussions on GBV.

Figure 1: Domestic violence intensified as a result of lockdown.

Source: UN Women, June 2020.

The situation in Vietnam

There is only limited information about GBV in Viet Nam. The first national study was conducted in 2010, with worrying conclusions about the rate of violence against women and silence from victims. 90% of women who had experienced physical and/or sexual violence were reported to have not seek help from anyone. This silence burden should be understood from Viet Nam cultural patterns. The Vietnamese culture is deeply influenced by Confucianism which induces a patriarchal gender hierarchy (UN Viet Nam 2010). Traditional gender norms are deeply rooted within the relations between men and women, normalising the phenomenon of violence and encouraging stigma against victims. Therefore, according to traditional norms, men should “teach” their wives in order to protect the honour of the family (Rydstrøm 2006). The proverb “give the stick for love, give candy for hate” also appears to justify violence by a husband to “teach” his wife. Social distancing measures in Viet Nam particularly threatened women as they were trapped at home with their abusers. The social norms pressure also intensified, women being asked to take up the education of children with the closure of schools and to provide for the needs of their husbands staying at home. More importantly, social distancing measures in Viet Nam also intensified the silence burden as victims reported that they did not want to “trouble the authorities” with Covid-19 already being their main preoccupation. This renders the observed increase in violence as a consequence of lockdown even more worrying as it could only represent a thin portion of Viet Nam’s gender-based violence reality. According to a CSAGA support office report, lockdown measures had severe consequences for GBV in Viet Nam, exposing women to more physical violence but most importantly to psychological abuses (CSAGA 2020b). Throughout and after lockdown, the hotline registered a significantly higher number of calls reporting psychological harms, women being pressured by their husbands and prohibited from going out and seeking for help. Lockdown in Viet Nam last for twenty days from from 2nd to 22nd of April. This is considered to be among the shortest ones compared to the world median length of 43 days. Yet, the repercussions were stringent for GBV with the CSAGA hotline registering 6 victim calls per day in April and an increase of 30% in reporting of gender-based violence the following month. The quick ease of lockdown measures failed to alter the rise in domestic violence, with the degree of brutality and cruelty intensifying severely. Data also points a sudden rise in homophobia with women love women victims reporting psychological abuses and intrafamilial violence. As lockdown ended, economic pressures were also placed on women with partners prohibiting them from returning to work and coercing them to handle domestic work (CSAGA 2020a). The situation in Viet Nam exposes the long-term consequences that social distancing measures have induced for gender-based violence. Lockdown may not have constituted the most important threat to women’s safety, as evidence seems to indicate that patriarchal pressures have spurred as a consequence of public health measures. This setback from the progress made towards women empowerment has been observed across most countries around the world, with women bearing the brunt of housework from stay-at-home policies. Severe losses in terms of gender equality could therefore result from Covid-19 if policies are not adopted for recovery plans to secure an equal position for women and men.

The ‘Shadow Pandemic’

The Viet Nam case demonstrates the need for safety plans in times of crisis to ensure that survivors are safe while protecting them from potential perpetrators at the same time. While lockdown measures proved to be efficient to stop the propagation of Covid-19, they resulted in a most severe harm for women around the world. Viet Nam is a particularly evocating case in that sense as this China-bordering country had – until September 2020 – managed to fight the disease without suffering any loss among its population. Yet, lockdown measures did not spare this country from what the UN refers to as being the ‘Shadow Pandemic’. Measures adopted to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak globally intensified all types of violence against women and girls, and particularly domestic violence (UNDP 2020). Since the publication of the first gender-based violence report in 2010, Viet Nam adopted a number of national policies seeking to eradicate gender-based violence and to promote gender equality. To supplement it, a program spearheaded by four organisations (Batik International, Planète Enfants & Développement, CSAGA and SCDI) was launched in 2019 to break the cycle of gender-based violence in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. The Hy Vong Project seeks to shift the Vietnamese social norms through the promotion of gender equality and the education of young people on the issue of violence. With the pandemic exposing even more GBV in Viet Nam, the need to reinforce pre-existing victim support mechanisms and to address violence against women and girls has gained momentum. This call for action was answered in June 2020 with the launch of a Vietnamese governmental program supported by the Government of Australia and the United Nations agencies (UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women) identifying violence against women and children as a priority response to Covid-19.

Global action for gender equality

In a sense, Covid-19 may have helped the quest for gender equality by making GBV a key priority of recovery plans. In many parts of the world, gender-based violence has gained momentum with the rise of civil society movements and the implementation of national emergency programs to prevent and address domestic violence. In 2015, world leaders took a clear commitment towards gender equality by setting up the Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals towards 2030. Under SDG 5, gender equality and women empowerment were set as a key priority for this global transformational shift. So far, Covid-19 seems to have acted as a disruptive force to the efforts made internationally towards equal opportunities for women and men. Yet, this preliminary quite negative observation should be nuanced in light of the efforts undertaken by the global community in the pandemic response. What now represents an obstacle to gender-equality progress could result in a turning point for women empowerment. Many have stressed Covid-19 as the time to “build back better” and to incite a step-change at the crossroad of women’s empowerment and global economic, social and healthcare recovery. Gender equality has been pointed out as a decisive factor for the world’s future socioeconomic development, with the UN secretary general urging governments to put women at the centre of recovery and response. Covid-19 could therefore result in the necessary stimulus for an efficient cooperation in the quest for gender equality. This article was written thanks to the contribution of BATIK International and its partner CSAGA (Center for Studies and Applied Science in Gender), providing original and sensible data about gender-based violence in Viet Nam.


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