You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you do not understand.~ Layla F. Saad in Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor
Living within and alongside both the global pandemic of COVID-19 and our world’s racial injustices is another oppression that is being laid bare: a deeply rooted misogyny, which is the fruit of an ancient social system called “patriarchy,” aka “male supremacy.” Because this form of human subjugation goes back millennia to the cradles of what we know as “modern civilization,” and because it is laced with so many traditional and sacred cows that make it appear virtuous and just the way things are, we have not yet as a society fully named patriarchy for what it truly is—the oldest, most enduring root of slavery. Patriarchy is where the human family first began normalizing the unnatural, immoral, and inhumane notion that one human being could own and subjugate another as property.
While we are working to flatten the COVID-19 curve, while we are taking down monuments to our world’s colonial, slave-owning past, we must continue to maintain an intersectional lens to look at the interlocking nature of oppressions that tear our social fabric and stem from the same ancient stew.
Like this virus that is wreaking havoc on our world, imperial supremacy systems in all their forms have infected our human fabric with a disease that continues to maim and rupture the health and balance of both humanity and the natural world. In our respective fields of work, we have heard partner organizations report that the negative impacts of the pandemic are falling disproportionately on the shoulders of women and girls, as already intolerable yet normalized levels of incest, rape, sexual assault, lack of access to maternal and reproductive health care, unwanted pregnancy, forced early marriage, and myriad forms of gender-based violence (“gendercide”) are on the rise under stay-at-home orders.
The numbers vary from place to place and are hard to measure because most of this violence happens behind closed doors, but estimates from the United Nations Population Fund suggest that three months of quarantine has resulted in roughly a 20 percent rise in intimate partner violence (IPV) throughout the world, which equals roughly 15 million additional cases as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. As bell hooks described in her piece for the No Borders collective, Understanding Patriarchy, just as we need to tell the truth about unjust yet normalized racist structures, we need to name all of the ways patriarchy has normalized traditions, beliefs, and behaviors that do not see females as fully human. “Keeping males and females from telling the truth about what happens to them in families is one way patriarchal culture is maintained,” hooks wrote. “A great majority of individuals enforce an unspoken rule in the culture as a whole that demands we keep the secrets of patriarchy, thereby protecting the rule of [men]. . . . This silence promotes denial. And how can we organize to challenge and change a system that cannot be named?”
Where I (Domnic) live in a village outside of Nairobi, Kenya, there has been a surge of teen (and younger) pregnancies, which expose the truth that home life is not a refuge for so many of our world’s girls—so many of whom have their first sexual encounter before they even know the basics of what menstruation is or how their bodies work. The sad truth behind this data is that older men presuming the prerogative to sexually prey on young girls (and vulnerable women) is still a norm in so many places and is the contemporary legacy of the world’s oldest oppression. Some ten thousand years ago, humankind made it normal for men to take girls and women as household slaves.
Because this human disfigurement and rupture of our stated ideals does not happen on the street like the gun and police violence that has led people to protest, it is even more important that we make a concerted effort to overcome cultural and religious taboos that keep us silent about gender-based oppression, and to name this hidden-in-plain sight pandemic of gendercide for what it is: the most ancient root of slavery. Here are some data points to tell the hidden truth of how this pandemic has been exacerbating an already intolerable status quo for women and girls around the world:
- The UK’s largest domestic abuse charity has reported a 120 percent increase in calls to its helpline since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
- India’s National Commission for Women has recorded a “two-fold increase in gender-based violence across the country, with the body receiving 257 calls in the final week of March as opposed to 116 calls in the first week.”
- Spain’s emergency number for domestic violence experienced an 18 percent increase in calls during the first two weeks of lockdown.
- In April the French police “reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in domestic violence.”
We know this is not upbeat news, but in truth telling we recover something more true and natural inside our humanity. As Jesus said so timelessly, the truth will set you free.
Living as a free people is a long, long walk, and every generation has its work to do to remove obstacles from the path and walk forward toward a truly indivisible freedom for all human beings. Who knows whether we are near the “last mile” or not, but wherever we are, to approach this last mile we need more people to do the inner work of shedding the blindspots and cultural baggage that keep us from truly embracing the oneness and beautiful diversity of our human family and the web of life we call our home.