The Gender Lens on COVID-19

One of the stories we are following in this COVID-19 world is how women and children are finding safety in homes when sheltering in place includes domestic abuse. Another is how healthcare workers — predominately women — are being protected. Here is what we have been learning so far. #MWPQuaranzine UPDATED: May 7, 2020

Cheryl Thomas: Intimate Partner Violence 

Advocates for victims of intimate partner violence spoke on KFAI: Rosario de la Torre, Casa de Esperanza, and Cheryl Thomas, Global Rights for Women

Cheryl Thomas, executive director of locally based Global Rights for Women, reminds us that systems address the public impacts of a pandemic, but do not address what happens in private. Although isolating people in their homes is part of the solution to minimize the spread of virus, there is little protection for those who are abused in the home. In general every day, the United Nations reports that 139 women are killed by intimate partners every day. 

“Women’s right to live free from violence has not been a priority for centuries,” Thomas says. “Governments are very late in acknowledging that most forms of violence against women occur in private lives, and they have been reluctant to intervene and stop it. Fortunately, awareness has grown in the last 20 years in many countries. But we are today living in a pandemic within a pandemic. 

“We leap to our feet to do something about a viral pandemic, thankfully,” she adds. “But the reality is, we accept the thousands of deaths and harm to women and girls that occurs daily around the world. Too many people in power accept it. A reporter recently asked our President about ‘shelter in place,’ and the higher risk of domestic violence. His response was, ‘it’s a cost.’ The acceptance of the violence makes it a non-issue. That is reflected in the research, or lack of it, on the gender impact of natural disasters and pandemics.” 

Thomas says, “This pandemic will be different only if we continue to advocate for the most vulnerable and share more documentation about the gendered nature of the harm.” 

Cecelia Rude: Police Response 

As the Domestic Violence Community Advocate for the Minneapolis Police Department, based in the North Minneapolis Fourth Precinct, Cecilia Rude has been on the front lines of this issue. A majority of calls to the Minneapolis police department overall — on average 25,000 calls a year — are about domestic crisis. Since #StayatHomeMN started, she has seen an increase in calls. 

“The requests for Order for Protections and shelter have doubled. On average I write approximately 5-7 Protection Orders a week. Over the past three weeks, since the Stay-at-Home Order, I am averaging 14-17 orders a week — and that is just writing of protection orders. Calls for assistance, and follow up from officers, is constant. The need for shelter is extremely high, with little to no open beds at this time. Women and their children don’t feel safe in their homes. We as service providers are struggling to find alternative places for them to find refuge.”

The stay-at-home order has an exemption for those who do not feel safe. Those concerned about domestic violence are encouraged to seek out assistance outside their home. “Governor Walz wants survivors to know that they do not have to quarantine with someone they do not feel safe with, and should call 911 if they or another family member is in danger.”

Although Rude herself is working remotely, police officers are “still following protocol and conducting arrests when need be. Cases are still being investigated and prosecuted. The city and county attorney’s office are following up and prosecuting these cases to the best of their ability.”

A phone report center has been implemented for non-life-threatening calls for service that requires a police report, but might not be an imminent emergency, such as protection order violations, deprivation of parental rights, obscene or harassing calls and text messages, and damage to property: 612-348-2345 or 911.

Rude says two domestic violence advocates from Cornerstone, and one sexual assault advocate from the Sexual Violence Center, continue to work with the investigation office, particularly for higher level assault. They provide direct advocacy through their agencies, including protection order writing, court advocacy, and shelter. She says advocates from the Domestic Abuse Service Center (DASC) follow up with misdemeanor calls. Advocates from the city attorney’s office, Victim Witness Assistances, follow-up with victims. Officers provide victims with blue cards offering domestic-related resources within the city.

Rude is a direct resource for victims, providing safety planning, referrals, system navigation, and protection order writing. She offers these Action = Change tips for readers who want to help someone in an abusive environment.

  • With intimate partner violence victims being quarantined inside with their abuser, it has made it extremely difficult to reach out for assistance discretely. Create a code word. Have them text it to you if they need help or want you to call the police on their behalf. I do this a lot with my clients.
  • Help them figure out a plan to keep safe, including an alternative place to stay. Encourage self-care. 
  • Try to maintain social connection using video or phone conference, to keep the communication lines open and help victims from feeling isolated.
  • “The most important thing a loved one can do,” Rude emphasizes, “is to remember that they have to stay patient and be understanding. It is hard to see a loved one experiencing intimate partner violence, but we can’t force someone we care about to make a change. Let your loved one take the lead. When and if they get to a point of wanting a change, support and encourage them. Applaud them for their courage. 
  • Validate their struggles — that this is hard and what they are feeling is normal. Tell them you are there to support them in any way THEY need. Encourage self-care for the survivor, and for you. This stuff takes time, so be patient as we take care of one another. Know that your loved ones are not alone during this. There are people and agencies all over Minnesota who are dedicated to keeping women and their children, or anyone experiencing IPV, be safe during this challenging time.” 

Health Care With a Gender Lens

According to Laura Wilson, women’s human rights attorney for Global Rights for Women, less than one percent of published research papers on the 2014-16 West Africa Ebola virus outbreak and the 2016 Zika outbreak focused on the gendered dimensions of health emergencies

A Project Syndicate essay pointed out that shifting narratives, with gender at the center of the pandemic response, also requires protecting and supporting the healthcare industry. The protective gear needed — medical masks and gloves — affects a global health workforce that is 70 percent women. 

Women’s traditional role as caregivers for sick family members increases their exposure to infectious diseases through person-to-person contact. This occurred during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak and the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, when large numbers of caregiving girls and women were infected. 

During the West African Ebola outbreak, maternal mortality in the region also increased by 75 percent.

The attention needed to these issues, wrote the Project Syndicate authors, “requires promoting women to leadership roles. Women are skilled service providers, epidemiologists, caregivers, community leaders, and more. Above all, they are the best experts on their own lives and must be meaningfully engaged in all preparedness and response efforts. Gender imbalances in global health leadership, where men hold 72 percent of the top positions, must urgently be addressed.

Despite the World Health Organization’s recognition of the need to include women in decision making for outbreak preparedness and response, there remains inadequate women’s representation in national and global COVID-19 policy spaces, such as in the White House Coronavirus Task Force. 

Center for Women, Gender and Public Policy

A Gender Policy Report published on April 28 suggested that state-level policymakers could implement five steps to save lives now:

  1. Remove the “essential services” designation and close stores that only sell guns.
  2. Ensure that Domestic Violence Protection Orders or Red Flag Law processes are still operational and that all avenues of requesting firearms surrender are available safely and virtually to survivors.
  3. Promote cross-training among court personnel and allied professionals around court processes that have been COVID-19 responsive, such as virtual appearances and remote filing, which allow survivors to obtain protection orders while still observing social distancing and following public health guidance.
  4. Fund intimate partner violence programs to serve survivors in COVID-19 responsive ways, including offering hotel rooms as opposed to congregant shelter options and letting advocates work remotely to provide flexible financial assistance to survivors.
  5. Promote accurate messaging from news and law enforcement entities. The media and law enforcement must not mischaracterize intimate partner violence when reporting an increase. It is a pattern of escalating coercive control which can be made more dangerous from this crisis, not two people getting annoyed with each other in close quarters. Public messaging should reflect the potential for lethal violence and include both local resources and National Hotline information, which includes a chat function to allow for more discreet communication.

Legislative Action Steps

Community members can use any newfound time to actively learn about and support legislation that impacts gender-based violence.

The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence called on Congress to include provisions in the COVID-19 emergency legislation and stimulus package to address the unique needs of survivors and to secure needed policy changes and increased resources as a matter of urgency. Learn more.

Current Minnesota legislation includes:

  • HF3360, sponsored by Rep. Julie Sandsted (DFL-Hibbing), which targets violent crime and domestic abuse, and would provide $10 million to support law enforcement, intervention, prevention, and treatment. Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Vernon Center) sponsors the companion, SF3144, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.
  • Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights) has sponsored HF3203, to fund a task force on Missing and Murdered African Women.
  • Laurie Halvorson (DFL-St Paul) is leading efforts on HF4448, to provide emergency housing for sexually exploited youth.


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