Impact of COVID-19 lockdown and link to women and children’s experiences of violence in the home in South Africa | BMC Public Health
Impact of COVID-19 lockdown and link to women and children’s experiences of violence in the home in South Africa | BMC Public Health

Impact of COVID-19 lockdown and link to women and children’s experiences of violence in the home in South Africa | BMC Public Health

Four main themes emerged during data analysis. First, participants’ accounts provided insights on women and men’s experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown and how it impacted and links to women and children’s experiences of violence in the home during lockdown. Second, our analysis revealed key drivers of violence experienced by women and children, perpetrated by men during lockdown. Third, the analysis illustrated the differential impact of hard lockdown on the participants based on their socio-economic status. Last, our analysis illuminated the different strategies employed by our participants in managing conflict and violence in the home during lockdown, which have important implications for prevention of domestic violence in future pandemics.

Women and children’s experiences of violence during COVID-19 lockdown

Our data revealed that some women experienced violence during the hard lockdown, primarily emotional partner violence including shouting, insults and manipulation. Only two of the 19 women reported experiencing physical partner violence during lockdown. There were also reports of physical violence against children during lockdown.

Emotional violence experienced by women and children in the home

Experiences of emotional violence were mostly reported by women in the low SES bracket, with relatively few reports from women in the high SES bracket during lockdown. Emotional violence against women was primarily perpetrated by their male spouses and intimate partners. Amongst women in the low SES, emotional violence was described as chiefly caused by a lack of food and other necessities in the home. Among women in the high SES bracket, confinement in the home was associated with increased stress and aggression from spouses during lockdown. Mapula, from the low SES bracket, described that while she did not experience physical violence, she had to live with a frustrated and angry partner who had lost income during the lockdown.

“My husband was working for a company which was affected by ban of alcohol sales. They did not get paid if they did not work … We had fights because there is lack of income in the house. We don’t fight physically, he gets harsh when he responds. It is more the verbal exchanges, angry responses, and a cold-shoulder after arguments, but not physical…” (Mapula, woman, low SES).

Some participants spoke about children witnessing outbursts of the emotional violence in the home during lockdown. A female participant shared her experience:

“We are fine. We once argued and said bad things to each other, shouting while my children were around…The older one came to speak to us, telling us to stop but we continued because we were both angry. The younger child was crying, everyone was at home.” (Mpumi, woman, low SES).

Some parents described staying at home during lockdown as stressful and that it made them become cranky and aggressive towards children. Mathapelo explained her experience of increased stress and short-temper because she could not work, during the hard lockdown:

“I`ve become very aggressive and there was a time I cried because I hit him [son]. Because of the stress I get irritable, I shout and sometimes hit my 4-year-old son, he is naughty, likes attention and I always lose my temper around him. I can’t wait for him to go back to school… Ja…[crying].” (Mathapelo, woman, low SES).

Many participants reported having to make budgetary adjustments because of less income, and this had a negative impact on their relationships with spouses at home. Some reported increased conflict, which resulted from having to cut down on spending and having limited resources and food during lockdown. For Lucy, a single parent, her efforts to ensure she saved money by eating less strained her relationship with her son. She regretted her impatience and saying things she did not mean to her child:

“We had a number of fights with my elder son, he wastes food now that he is home, while as a single parent I am trying to save… He is a very stubborn person who backchats when you speak. Talking nicely with him does not work. I try not to beat him, but I lose my temper and say things I regret when I am calm. I do not like that because he sometimes feels I do not love him, and only love his siblings.” (Lucy, woman, high SES).

Mukundi similarly described how tough decisions about how to manage the reduced family budget caused arguments between him and his spouse:

“We argued a lot over reducing how we spend the less salary I was now getting and that affected our relationship. She never understood [why they needed to cut spending], and I had to work-hard to show the person this is how we will now live in this house. I would apologise for my tone, but still make my point… It was very challenging to convince someone to come to their senses to understand that this is not the same time like before [the hard lockdown]” (Mukundi, man, low SES).

Key drivers of violence experienced by women and children during COVID-19 lockdown

Our data suggested that the drivers of violence against women and children in the home were diverse, and partly contingent on the socio-economic status of families. Food insecurity was most prominent in influencing the stress, arguments and conflict reported in the low SES households, while among high SES families, descriptions focused more on how confinement at home during lockdown resulted to stress and contributed to experiences of violence.

Food and basic provision

Most participants in the low SES group had either lost their jobs, had their salaries cut, or their livelihood strategies were no longer viable during lockdown. As such, they struggled to buy food, and experienced extreme food-insecurity. Lack of access to food was a source of tension, arguments and conflict amongst the low SES group. Our data highlighted how despite many men losing income or earning less during the lockdown, there remained a significant gendered expectation that men should continue to provide economically for their families, while women had to use whatever resources they were given to take care of the household and prepare food. Some men, who did not have money felt challenged and responded in ways that were described as emotionally abusive when they were asked to provide.

Mpumi lived with her husband whose source of income was a mini-bus (a common form of public transport) he used to transport children to school. However, with schools closed during the hard lockdown, he could not transport children. Mpumi described how the lack of money and not being able to buy food, led to arguments in the home. She felt that her husband was shifting responsibility to provide, and that she was the only one trying to ‘make a plan’ for them to have food:

“It was not a nice fight because we said things that we can never take back and it’s painful…uhm… My husband is a quiet person. When we do not have food, I am the one who has to see and make a plan. I told him that day that he needs to make a plan. He just stood and shouted that I do not understand…where do I think he gets the money and all that… Nothing happened we were arguing, I was very upset and crying because I felt he is being irresponsible and not taking care of us as he should and he was not understanding what I meant.” (Mpumi, woman, low SES).

Thabo, who lived with his unemployed spouse, received half his salary during the hard lockdown period as he worked three, instead of six days a week. He described the negative impact of the salary-cut in the family, feeling blamed and pressurised by his spouse to continue to provide even when he was unable:

“Like I said, I am working in a food store, my wife does not work. Sometimes when I get home I find that there is no food. Sometimes she would blame me and pressurise me. We end up having a misunderstanding and fighting. She would say “you are the father you should make a plan” Sometimes we used to fight physically and break things in the house, and sometimes verbally I was unstable when it comes to providing food, that is where the problem was and we ended up fighting. It was a situation where there was nothing in the house, then it was where we were fighting because she was pressurizing me to make a plan.” (Thabo, man, low SES).

Precious’ husband stayed at home for four months, and was paid 40% of his salary, a situation that he struggled to accept. Precious described how her husband did not want to talk about anything related to the salary-cut, and whenever she raised the issue of food with him, he would become aggressive:

“I always knew and had to prepare myself before asking what we going to eat for dinner. His answers are very hurtful, and he feels I am attacking him, that always brings arguments between us.” (Precious, woman, low SES).

Similarly, Mapula described how her male partner, who was retrenched from his job during the hard lockdown, refused to engage on discussions about what they were going to eat, and rather perceived that his manhood was questioned because he no longer has money:

“When I ask him what are we going to eat, he is like, ‘just because I don’t have money now it’s a big thing’, and I am like because he as the father, must figure out what we are going to eat.” (Mapula, woman, low SES).

Some men also expressed that not being able to provide for their families during the hard lockdown made them feel less of a man, and this affected them emotionally:

“I feel bad and frustrated as a father. As the leader of the house you must provide for your kids, because if the kids look to me and say we are hungry, and my wife says oh the kids are hungry, I am the one who is responsible to provide in the family. Yet on the other side, I am struggling and there is nothing I can do with it, it makes me angry. I feel like I am not man enough, though I was trying to get a little from somewhere, you understand, it has affected me very badly.” (Vuyo, man, low SES).

Similarly, Rhulani described the anger he felt as a man because he could not provide for his family:

“As a man I was feeling like I am not responsible and not man enough, she [spouse] used to ask me, ‘so now where are we going to get the food’? For me if I cannot provide for my family I am not man enough. It made me angry.” (Rhulani, man, low SES).

Stress of being confined together at home

For some participants, spending time at home strengthened bonds between parents and children and between spouses in the early days of the lockdown, particularly in families where spouses usually spend most of their time at work. However, many participants reported increased stress during lockdown. The causes of stress were different between the two income groups. Participants in the high SES reported increased stress due to confinement at home, particularly when movement and outdoor time was restricted in level 5 (hard lockdown) and them having to work remotely. Most participants in the low SES spoke about stress caused by loss of jobs and earning, worrying about survival, and meeting basic needs.

The continued lockdown and confinement in the home became increasingly difficult and many of the men interviewed found it difficult to adjust. Mthokozisi described his unfamiliar experience of having to spend more time with his spouse during lockdown as thus:

“I had to stay in the house with my partner and that is something I was not used to doing. I knew that when she is at work I will be left alone in the house, and now we have to stay together full time, look at each other in the eyes, the whole six months!” (Mthokozisi, man, low SES).

Some men said staying at home frustrated them and caused tension because they felt their female partner was not doing what they felt they should be doing in the home during lockdown. Vuyo explained that staying at home led to him commenting on a range of ‘small things’ his wife did, which triggered arguments. This pettiness, he argued, had an impact on his self-esteem:

“So, the way that I have seen [experienced] it, the lockdown killed us and killed the self-esteem on men because most of the time when you are at work you do not argue with your wife, but when you are together for a long time there are things you see that you do not see when you are at work. You react when she does not do things the way you would want her to do them.” (Vuyo, man, low SES).

Further demonstrating men’s expectations on which housechores their female partners should be doing, David spoke about his frustration when he felt his wife was lazy and not doing what he expected of her:

“For us, the tension, and arguments we had was when I felt my partner was lazy. While she could be cleaning and cooking or doing something, she would be lying in bed for example.” (David, man, high SES).

Children did not want to be cooped up

During the hard lockdown period schools were closed, and slowly reopened from 1st of June 2020, during Alert level 3. Participants, mainly from low-income families, described the challenges they faced in keeping children entertained in the home during lockdown. Some described how the restrictions did not consider the living conditions and circumstances of low-income families with limited space and less options to keep children entertained while at home:

“They didn’t consider our houses here in area X, which are small with limited space. How will Ndumiso learn to ride a bicycle here? The houses they [media] were showing us [on television], where families and children would be able to stay at home have gardens, many rooms,and there are groceries in that kitchen, you understand?” (Jeffrey, man, low SES).

Similarly, other participants from the low SES group described how they struggled to stop children from trying to go out and play with their friends. Parents would yell, shout and hit children, as they tried to keep them at home to protect them from acquiring COVID-19.

You know kids are very naughty, so sometimes I had to be harsh on them so that they can cooperate. I used to be harsh when I spoke my children… Example is when I locked the gate and the kids climb the gate to go out, I would shout and beat them, then they started to behave.” (Thabo, man, low SES).

One male participant who was very concerned about ensuring his teenage nephews did not contract COVID-19 sought to lock them in the house, yet this almost led to physical fights and strained their relationship:

“In terms of the relationship, it was affected negatively because I became harsh to my nephews trying to stop them from going out and our relationship became very bad.I have decided to just leave them because they go out more than five times a day and in terms of our relationship with them it has stopped [was negatively affected]… I started to lock the gate, they became angry and telling me they want to go, and I said you can’t go there and then the older one wanted to fight me physically, saying ‘we cannot be locked in this house forever’.” (Tebogo, man, low SES).

Keeping children occupied during lockdown was not such a challenge for most participants in high-income families. Children had various options including playing in the garden, electronic gadgets, online schooling and games. Rather most participants in high SES families struggled with having to balance working from home, looking after small children, and providing emotional support to their children:

“Well it is very hard because you need to prepare, you need to cook three times a day, make sure there is breakfast, lunch, clean up for everyone in between, keep an eye on children, and must be in zoom meetings for work.” (Paul, man, high SES)

‘People were left with nothing’: lack of psychosocial support

Closure of services providing psychosocial support and isolation from social networks during lockdown left people with limited coping strategies during lockdown. Mthokozisi for instance would normally go out with his friends on weekends as a way of coping with daily life stresses:

“I used to go out with friends on weekends, but because of the pandemic most of the places were closed and sometimes we couldn’t find something to drink, so life has changed, making it difficult for one to cope with all the stresses.” (Mthokozisi, man, low SES).

Similarly, Thabo described how he could not go to his church, where he received social and spiritual support and guidance:

“If I was able to go to church I think things would be easy for me and I would get support… The lockdown as a whole has affected me a lot spiritually.” (Thabo, man, low SES).

Strategies used to manage conflict and violence in the home

Most participants said they struggled to manage conflict and arguments in the home during lockdown. Several participants got support from family members:

“We decided that we should call [family] elders to come and advise us, because the conflicts will never take us anywhere. So as for us, I have spoken to her about why we are always fighting, as before [lockdown] we were not like this. She said she doesn’t know and I said we should call the elders to come and advise us on how to deal with this situation [fighting]. We ended up agreeing, so her granny and one member of my family sat us down and we tried to find the root of the problem.” (Thabo, man, low SES).

Others described using self-calming strategies to deal with the stress of lockdown. This included being calm, sensitive and apologising to spouses when wrong:

“How I resolved it, I used ‘self-therapy’, I just became patient with her… if I find that whatever I said didn’t sit well with her, I would apologise for the way I spoke…also still sticking to the very same comment to say, this is what I was trying to say that if the way that I speak, or my tone was not okay, I withdraw that. I used my calm language so that I can be able to find a solution.” (Mukundi, man, low SES).

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