Sharing Spaces With Men During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Poster from Malaysia’s Ministry for Women’s campaign #WomenPreventCOVID19

Each time the question “What would you do if all men had a 9PM curfew?” circulates on Twitter, it never draws light responses. It creates a unique opportunity to expose gender inequalities in public spaces, and share anecdotes about the many things women can’t or don’t do in order to avoid unwanted attention and protect themselves from sexual assault. Most responses contributing to this collective thought exercise have to do with access and mobility, like “going for a run at night with my earbuds in,” “going to a bar to have a drink without worrying about unwelcome advances,” “traveling alone,” and “taking the elevator without any anxiety”. This prompt also exposes other kinds of privilege in public spaces, as many black, indigenous, undocumented, and trans women report facing greater threats and therefore greater limitations in their mobility.

While governments worldwide claim that women’s access to public and private spaces, their mobility, agency, and safety are important in an emergency, they demonstrated this past year that they are never important enough to make any meaningful changes. All the threats that women have faced during pandemic lockdowns were extremely predictable–being locked indoors with abusers without access to social workers, birth control, women’s shelters, social services, or help from law enforcement. Evidence for the resulting crisis can be seen in Google search trends for 2020, showing searches for abortion clinics have tripled worldwide, compared to the prior 5 years.

Last spring, many women got a rare opportunity to experience public spaces without men, if only for a brief moment. To manage the frequency of movement around cities and stop the spread of coronavirus, some Latin American countries adopted a schedule for same-sex shopping days in a public health campaign called “Pico y Genero” — or “Peak and Gender” in English. Peru, Colombia, and Panama each issued directives that permitted men and women to go outside on alternating days.

“Pico y Genero,” however, ignored how mobility is affected by gendered labor, and quickly failed. Only eight days after “Pico y Genero” went into effect in Peru, the government walked back on the directive, noting that it was mostly women coming out to do laundry and do grocery shopping, which causeed long lines and crowding, and created an even bigger threat during the public health crisis. Addressing this oversight as the cause for canceling “Pico y Genero,” a Peruvian official stated:

“’In the patriarchal world in which we live there is a set of roles assigned to women that, unfortunately, is not the time to fight them, but they must be fought.’ With this statement, the Peruvian government acknowledged that it had not taken into account the disproportionate burden that women had on care and household tasks and therefore the ‘peak and gender’ measure had failed.”

Of all the painful images that have come to define this past year — patients lining the halls of crowded intensive care units, the empty grocery shelves, neighbors gathering on balconies to sing together — none are perhaps as unsettling as those of large, desolate, public spaces during tight lockdowns. Empty international airports, stadiums, squares, bars, piazzas, and promenades, once occupied by crowds, now empty and showing no signs of life.

On March 8th, 2020, just before most of the world went into lockdown in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, similar images were emerging from Mexico City showing a metropolis that was already eerily deserted. Yet the pandemic wasn’t to blame, the city’s streets were uncharacteristically quiet due to a nationwide silent protest against femicide and gender-based violence. “The Day Without Women” was an effort to focus society’s attention on the value of women in public life and the perils they face when taking on unstable, unsafe, and invisible jobs in the gig economy. Photos on social media showed half-empty mercados, museums, buses, parks, factories, and offices in one of the world’s biggest cities. The campaign, however, barely made the news.

While the protest may have been overshadowed by the lurking threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps it is because, despite all the organized feminist efforts otherwise, public spaces are still male by default. It is only when men are absent from public spaces that it seemingly becomes a crisis.

At home, the COVID-19 crisis has surfaced another deadly pandemic: in private spaces, behind closed doors, women are threatened with both forced mobility and immobility, as well as physical and sexual violence, digital surveillance, separation from their children, and withholding of protective masks and medicine.

Documented reports of intimate partner violence increased dramatically across different cultures and borders, in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, France, Italy, Spain, the UK, the US, and India. Perhaps most alarming are the areas where there has been a significant decrease in calls, and an increase in traffic on websites for domestic violence and intimate partner abuse, resulting in a 75% spike in Google searches seeking help for domestic violence.

Domestic violence victims in lower-income communities are disproportionately affected by intimate partner abuse, living in smaller physical spaces where they don’t have privacy to call for help, but might instead be able to quietly search for help and information online. Under the current movement restrictions, women have also lost “their usual ways of slipping out of the house to attend counseling, under the pretext of going shopping, to the hairdresser, or to meet friends”.

Many women are subject to surveillance by their abusers, making it impossible both to call the helpline, and to seek help online. If their abusers monitor their activity online and search history, women may avoid looking up how to get help, which led to proactive efforts in the media to share the phone numbers for domestic violence helplines directly with viewers, bringing critical information into people’s homes.

Alarmingly, many law enforcement agencies have deprioritized responses to domestic violence calls during the COVID-19 emergency, especially those departments already operating at a reduced capacity after many officers contracted the virus themselves. This crisis is by no means a phenomenon related to this pandemic, as gender-based violence is repeatedly ignored and deprioritized in early warning and emergency response planning. During the COVID-19 crisis a pattern emerged in Italy, Spain, and France where domestic violence calls surged about a week after lockdowns took place:

“About 10 days later, distress calls spike, setting off a public outcry. Only then do the governments scramble to improvise solutions.”

Well before the UK went into lockdown, The New York Times reported this trend and inquired what measures were being undertaken to prevent the same domestic violence crisis in prolonged confinement, and received a response by the Home Office that only “existing sources of advice and support would be available.”

It was only after the well-predicted surge of domestic violence incidents was reported by the media that the Home Office started sharing widely the phone numbers for support and emergency assistance, only one of which was specifically related to COVID-19.

Women’s shelters around the world have suffered from loss of funding, staff, and space to house the growing number of women seeking shelter since the lockdowns began early last year. Creating enough distance between beds means fewer people can stay at the shelters. Many women are also choosing to stay with their abuser instead of going to a shelter out of fear of contracting the virus, or are worried about passing the virus on to older family members if they were to move in with them. There are very few places to go for help when support networks are shattered, businesses and administrative buildings are closed, and welfare counselors can’t come by for home visits. Because they are one of few “third spaces” still available to women, pharmacies in France and Italy have responded to the crisis by publicizing a code victims can surreptitiously use at the counter to get help, even if their abuser is with them.

With no help coming, and nowhere to run, women are left to navigate the geographies inside the home carefully to avoid their abusers.

Women’s shelters and organizations offer the following advice to those quarantined with their abusers: avoid kitchens and bathrooms, spaces with hard floors where there are objects that could easily be weaponized.

“She had moved back in with her father, the man who she says physically and sexually abused her for years. Kai hasn’t slept much since she moved back in, her door doesn’t have a lock. There was a routine to the physical abuse, it happened only when Kai did something to upset him. So she plans to stay out of his way and now only leaves her room to run to the bathroom and make herself something to eat in the kitchen.”(BBC)

“He insists on total surveillance at all times. If she tries to lock herself in a room, he kicks the door until she opens it. “I can’t even have privacy in the bathroom — and now I have to endure this in a lockdown,” she wrote in a message sent late at night, to hide the communication from her husband.” (NYT)

“One caller to The Hotline spoke about her husband forcing her to wash her hands repeatedly until they were raw and bleeding. Another threatened to kick her out of the house to increase her exposure to the virus.” (NYT)

In addition to physical and sexual violence, many abusers have used the pandemic to justify controlling their partner's movement, forcing strict rules around hygiene and behavior on women, and controlling access to hand sanitizer, medicine, and protective masks. Responding to the early signs of an increase in domestic violence, the Malysian Ministry of Women published a pamphlet online advising women how to manage stress, conflict, space, and their bodies during the quarantine. The campaign was shared with the hashtag #WomenPreventCOVID19, though the advice given seems to have little to do with preventing the spread of the virus, and everything to do with placing the responsibility to prevent domestic violence during lockdowns on the women.

The posters for the campaign were published on Facebook and Instagram, but later removed after drawing outrage and ridicule online. They advised women that, in order to avoid agitating their husbands during this stressful time, they should avoid nagging and sarcasm and instead use “a silly voice” when asking for help with chores, or speak in a high-pitched voice like Doreamon, the cartoon robot-cat. The campaign advised women to change out of their pajamas and put makeup on in the morning, and avoid loose and casual clothes. (Buzzfeed).

The posters act as a rare, formal guide for how to behave and navigate movement in male-dominated spaces. There was no parallel campaign geared toward men however about preventing domestic violence, maintaining healthy relationships during lockdowns, anger management, gendered power dynamics, dividing chores, or tips for how to listen to their partner when they’re not speaking like a robot cat.

In Poland, 2020 ended with the biggest protests the country has seen in decades, responding to a new, near-total abortion ban by the far-right government, prohibiting access to safe abortions even in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. The ruling came only two months after the government moved to leave the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to prevent and combat violence against women, during a pandemic that saw a 50% increase in calls to the national domestic violence helpline after the lockdown was announced in March of 2020. In a deeply ironic move, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz called for a stop to the nationwide protests because it’s an “ongoing risk to public health”, failing to recognize that the protests are a response to the public health risk directly created by his administration, affecting women’s reproductive health and preventing them from getting regular fetal screenings.

Unlike the “Un Dia Sin Los Mujeres” campaign in Mexico City where the absence of women in public spaces was the act of protest which few seemed to notice, women in Poland made their presence known, blocking traffic with their bodies, occupying streets, plazas, and churches around the country, and holding signs that demanded a reclaiming of their bodies from the church and state.

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most powerful trigger events of the past century, it has devastated our healthcare systems and will leave permanent changes in our socioeconomic and political structures. Like similarly disruptive events before it, this crisis has also created opportunities for change. Just as the Great Depression led to the New Deal in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped fuel progressive social movements’ efforts to reform economic and social services. The crisis presents opportunities for major sociocultural changes as well. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, gender quotas were set for elected positions in the new constitution. Today, women make up 67% of the Rwandan parliament — the highest number of parliamentarians in the world — and the country has consistently ranked among the top ten countries on the Global Gender Gap Index.

Now, while our social systems are fractured and exposed, is the time to reimagine and rebuild radically equitable public and private spaces. During a pandemic which has profoundly altered our sense of space and mobility and thereby threatens to set women’s equality back decades, we must reimagine our spaces with radically equitable mobility and power structures.

While it can play a key role in creating safer environments, design alone can never fix deeply rooted gender, racial, and ableist inequalities in public and private spaces. It may seem like many of the gendered crises brought about by the pandemic can be fixed with surface-level changes to public design and urban planning, such as public transport, grocery aisles, and sidewalk redesigns; new zoning policies that mandate more exits in homes; prioritizing domestic violence calls in law enforcement; or adding more space in women’s shelters to accommodate domestic violence victims as part of emergency planning. These solutions, however, don’t address the root problem of gendered spaces and mobility. That can only happen with a change in cultural attitudes and public opinion. Making public and private spaces safer for women requires political will to adopt meaningful structural changes and criminalize gender-based violence.

We must imagine worlds where the lack of women in public spaces brings about the same degree of shock and unease as the lack of men. Worlds where men are constantly mindful of the power dynamics in the room, their presence, bodies, movement, and how much space they take up — so that we don’t have to fantasize about the things we could do if they weren’t around.

Human rights researcher and ethnographer. Writes about techy stuff, humanitarian innovation, forced displacement, and refugee rights. Nutella expert.