Problem framing of increased gender-based violence by national governments of Argentina and Spain during COVID-19: an interpretive policy analysis

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  • 1 University of Maastricht, , The Netherlands
  • | 2 University of Maastricht, , The Netherlands
  • | 3 Context in Development, , United Kingdom
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The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in mitigation efforts that put women at increased risk of gender-based violence. Stay-at-home requirements increased abuse at home. Early in the pandemic Spain and Argentina issued policies to address such violence at home. This policy analysis uses the ‘What’s the problem represented to be’ approach to shed light on the different assumptions, intentions and problem framings in both governments’ policy responses. Drawing on published policy documents we found both disparities and similarities in the way that gender-based violence is represented as a problem. Four key findings emerged; (1) gender-based violence is not clearly defined in the policies and the terminology has a partially (de)gendered discourse while focusing on female ‘victims’ of violence; (2) the role of men as perpetrators is ‘silenced’; (3) the problem construction weighs exclusively on the aftermath of the violence, and; (4) both countries address violence against LGBTI+ in different ways. Our recommendations are for policymakers to reconsider the focus of their policies in these respects to reduce the harm that naming and framing of gender-based violence can inflict. We recommend attention to the root causes of gender-based violence to result in a more holistic and sustainable approach in policy development.

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in mitigation efforts that put women at increased risk of gender-based violence. Stay-at-home requirements increased abuse at home. Early in the pandemic Spain and Argentina issued policies to address such violence at home. This policy analysis uses the ‘What’s the problem represented to be’ approach to shed light on the different assumptions, intentions and problem framings in both governments’ policy responses. Drawing on published policy documents we found both disparities and similarities in the way that gender-based violence is represented as a problem. Four key findings emerged; (1) gender-based violence is not clearly defined in the policies and the terminology has a partially (de)gendered discourse while focusing on female ‘victims’ of violence; (2) the role of men as perpetrators is ‘silenced’; (3) the problem construction weighs exclusively on the aftermath of the violence, and; (4) both countries address violence against LGBTI+ in different ways. Our recommendations are for policymakers to reconsider the focus of their policies in these respects to reduce the harm that naming and framing of gender-based violence can inflict. We recommend attention to the root causes of gender-based violence to result in a more holistic and sustainable approach in policy development.

Key messages

  • The WPR approach to analysis of GBV policies during pandemics exposes underlying biases that avert attention from the root causes of GBV.

  • In order to reduce the prevalence of GBV, Argentina and Spain could redirect the focus of their COVID-19 policies away from women as ‘victims’ and towards the perpetrators of GBV.

Introduction

A novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The virus has since spread to almost every country of the world (WHO, 2020). ‘Stay home, stay safe’ became a widespread message that was central to mitigation efforts. However, ‘staying home’ does not mean ‘staying safe’ for everyone (UN Women, 2020). Although data are scarce, emerging estimates reveal alarming rates of gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 pandemic (Campbell, 2020; Roesch et al, 2020; UN Women, 2020). An increase in GBV during times of crises is not a new phenomenon however (Peterman et al (2020). Gender-based violence, linked to school closures and lockdowns, increased in West Africa, during the 2013–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example (Onyango et al, 2019). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in different countries have initiated various policies to counteract this ‘Shadow Pandemic’ (Guedes et al, 2020).

Political scientist Carol Bacchi (2009) suggests that policies do not simply ‘fix problems’ that are existent in the world but are powerful tools that give shape to the social world by problematising issues in certain ways. Different governments’ policy responses to the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ are, therefore, likely to consist of different assumptions, intentions and problem framings. Argentina and Spain, during the COVID-19 pandemic, manifested similar increases of GBV during COVID-19 lockdown, both first noticeable in April 2020 following comparable levels of movement restrictions in March 2020. As a result, both countries quickly developed specific national policy responses to address GBV during lockdown measures at around the same time. An important comparative factor of these two countries is their shared history of the cultural ideal of machismo (Hortiguera and Favoretto, 2013; Rodríguez-del-Pino, 2019). The concept of machismo originated in the Iberian and Latino cultures. Machismo cultures are characterised by dichotomous gender values, in which masculinity implies a collection of cultural values indicating how men ought to behave in relation to others, with the exercise of power over women at the heart of this relation (Rodríguez-del-Pino, 2019). In Argentina and Spain, the normalisation of violence against women is perpetuated by social institutions (Canada Immigration and Rufugee Board, 2016; Cepeda, 2018). With the comparative principle of machismo culture at the basis of our policy analysis, we were interested in comparing an Iberian with a Latino country. It was also important to compare policies in the same language since terminologies and definitions are a critical component of the analysis and comparing policies in different languages would have introduced unnecessary complexity to the analysis.

This political analysis asks the question: How can problem naming and framing of increased GBV during COVID-19 lockdown by the national governments of Argentina and Spain be understood and compared using the ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’ approach? In line with the Bacchi framework, our analysis explores how the problem is constructed, what assumptions underpin the problem framing and what has been kept ‘unproblematic’. We provide an analysis of the implications that result from the way this critical problem is represented in the policies. Noteworthy is the consideration of violence against LGBTI+ persons in both countries’ policies, as this group is considered to be at heightened risk of GBV but often overlooked or inadequately addressed (UNHCR, 2011). The insights that derive from this study provide a starting point for governments to develop policies that address the increase in gender related violence during time of national crisis in a holistic and sustainable manner.

Background

The term gender-based violence is distinct from other terms such as ‘domestic violence’, ‘interpersonal violence’ and ‘family violence’ as it puts gender at the centre of the concept and outlines a power relation, emphasising the ongoing manipulation of power that is at the core of the violence (Hearn and McKie, 2010). Whereas these terms typically go hand-in-hand with gender-neutral words such as ‘partners’, ‘people’, and ‘parents’, the term ‘gender-based violence’ is usually accompanied by the gendered expression of both the violator and the violated (Hearn and McKie, 2010). Another frequently used term for the violated, and subject to research by criminologist Stephanie Fohring (2018), is the term ‘victim’. Fohring found that for some, the ‘victim’ label is fraught with negative feelings and thoughts, and the use of the term ‘victim’ has invoked large critiques in modern western society due to the stigmatic connotation of the word. She argues that ‘victims’ are generally identified by others as being weak, passive and fragile.

The sociocultural concept of machismo can be considered as one of the drivers of GBV as machista attitudes among men could lead to beliefs that violence and aggression against women is justified (Pérez-Martínez et al, 2020). Ramírez et al (2017) define machismo as beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that are directly related to ideas of the superiority of men in areas that are considered important for men. In machismo-embedded cultures, the man is considered the pillar of the house in which he owes total respect and admiration. In this context violent behaviour must be accepted. Women exist solely to serve the masculine gender and are deemed incapable of making decisions of their own. Their role in life is to be a wife and mother dedicated to her husband, her children and for caring for the home (Ramírez et al, 2017). Women are perceived as weak, dependent and submissive (Pérez-Martínez et al, 2020).

Given the culture of machismo and with it the condoning of violence against women it is not surprising that its occurrence is common. In Argentina, scholars and media sources alike report that violence against women is an integral part of Argentina’s machismo and patriarchal culture. In this context, women are considered as objects and violence against women is normalised within institutions, the press, the media and the society at large (Hortiguera and Favoretto, 2013; Canada Immigration and Refugee Board, 2016). The Argentinian government formally recognised domestic violence as a problem in 1994, when the first law on protection against family violence, Law 24.417 was introduced (El Senado y Cámara de Diputados de la Nación Argentina reunidos en Congreso, 1994).

Although there is no official register, the Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos [Ministry of Justice and Human Rights] in Argentina reports in 2017 that at least 26.9 per cent of women over 16 years of age experience physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner (Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Nación, 2017). The Domestic Violence Bureau received 14,147 complaints related to domestic violence in 2017 (Oficina de Violencia Doméstica, 2017). However, among women in Argentina, GBV is not widely accepted. In a recent study on attitudes towards intimate partner violence among women by Duc Tran, Nguyen and Fisher (2016) only 2 per cent of Argentinian women were found to have accepting attitudes of a husband hitting his wife for transgressions related to her expected behaviour as a wife or mother, including refusing sex.

In Argentina, stay-at-home requirements related to COVID-19 were initiated by the national government on 19 March 2020, with strictly regulated exceptions to leave the house for ‘essential trips’ such as grocery shopping (Blavatnik School of Government, 2020). Following the lockdown restrictions, calls to the national emergency line for victims of abuse rose by 67 per cent in April as compared to the same period a year earlier and femicide during the lockdown period was at the highest seen for a decade (Sigal et al, 2020; Lopez, 2020).

In Spain, like in Argentina, the trivialisation and normalisation of GBV is also perpetuated by social institutions such as media outlets, demonstrating attitudes of toleration and using language that renders GBV as acceptable (Cepeda, 2018). On governmental level, the Organic Laws 11/2003 and 1/2004 were the first to deal with domestic violence and GBV (Jefatura del Estado, 2003; Jefatura del Estado, 2004). These thus came about ten years after the first Argentinian law on protection against family violence.

In Spain, 13 per cent of women experience physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner at least once in their lifetime (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014). In 2019, the Ministerio de Justicia [Ministry of Justice] registered 4,748 women as victims of domestic violence in 2019 (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 2020b). However, according to a study by Gracia and Tomás (2014), acceptance of GBV among women is relatively higher than in Argentina. Although slowly transforming alongside changes in Spanish society, the machismo model of masculinity in Spain still leaves its traces, in line with the long traditional assumption that ‘a man has licence to do whatever he wants’ (Rodríguez-del-Pino, 2019: 5).

As in Argentina, COVID-19 related stay-at-home requirements in Spain were also instated in March 2020. The government ordered its citizens to stay at home, with strictly regulated exceptions to make ‘essential trips’ (Blavatnik School of Government, 2020). During this time, although police complaints dropped sharply, calls to the national domestic violence helpline increased by 47 per cent in the first two weeks of April, as compared to the same two weeks in the previous year (Burgen, 2020). Moreover, women contacting essential social support services through email or social media were reported to have increased by 700 per cent (Burgen, 2020).

A summary country profile, including GBV related information, of the two selected countries, Argentina and Spain, is found in Table 1.

Table 1:

Summary of key indicators and population parameters Argentina and Spain

ArgentinaSpain
Population45,200,000 (Worldometer, 2020)46,800,000 (Worldometer, 2020)
Population density16/km2 (World Population Review, 2020)92/km2 (World Population Review, 2020)
% of people living in urban environments92.7 (Worldometer, 2020)80.1 (Worldometer, 2020)
Life expectancy for females/males80.4/73.8 (Worldometer, 2020)86.7/81.3 (Worldometer, 2020)
GDP per capita in US$11,684 (World Bank, 2018a)30,324 (World Bank, 2018a)
Gini index41.4 (World Bank, 2018b)34.7 (World Bank, 2017)
Unemployment rate in % of the total labour force9.8 (World Bank, 2020b)14 (World Bank, 2020b)
% of seats in the national parliament held by women40.9 (World Bank, 2020a)44 (World Bank, 2020a)
Gender wage gap in average % that men earn more than women20.2 (Departamento de Estudios Estadísticos Subgerencia de Planificación, 2019)14.9 (Comisión de Igualdad y Diversidad de CEOE, 2019)
Gender-based violence data pre COVID-19 lockdown**
Starting date of stay-at-home requirements19 March 2020 (Blavatnik School of Government, 2020)14 March 2020 (Blavatnik School of Government, 2020)
GBV data post COVID-19 lockdown**
  • calls to the national emergency line rose by 67% in April 2020 compared to the year before (Sigal et al, 2020)

  • the number of women killed between 20 March and 14 May was at least 49, the highest amount of femicide during the same time period in ten years (Lopez, 2020)

  • calls to the national domestic violence helpline increased with 47% in the first two weeks of April compared to the year before (Burgen, 2020)

  • women contacting essential social support services through email/social media is said to have increased by 700% (Burgen, 2020)

Methods

This research uses Carol Bacchi’s ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’ (WPR) approach to analyse problem naming and framing of increased GBV during COVID-19 lockdown in the two countries. The Health Policy Triangle (Walt and Gilson, 1994) and the Intersectionality-Based Policy Analysis (IPBA) frameworks for policy analysis were also considered. The Health Policy Triangle takes a four-pronged approach to policy analysis. The actors involved, the context, purpose and use of the policy are examined. The IPBA is a comprehensive tool for policy analysis. Context, problem framing, underlying assumptions, inequities and impact of the policy are all considered in this approach (Hankivsky et al, 2014). The Bacchi approach was preferred since it recognises the importance of unpacking the problem representation to understand how and why certain policies come to be developed in particular contexts (Blackmore and Lauder, 2005: 97). As described by Bacchi and Goodwin (2016), researchers that have used the WPR approach in their analysis of domestic violence legislation have found the approach useful in exemplifying ‘silences’ around the gendered nature of violence (Hearn and McKie, 2010) and highlighting the framing of domestic violence as an exception to the norm (Powell and Murray, 2008). The six steps in the WPR approach are set out in Box 1. As the first question serves for clarification of the problem representation, question two begins the task of identifying underlying assumptions (Bacchi, 2009). For this purpose, we analysed the policies for binaries, categories and key concepts to identify conceptual logics of GBV during COVID-19 lockdown in order to make sense to the policy-reader. The third question reflects on developments and decisions that have contributed to the emergence of the problem representation (Bacchi, 2009). To address this question we looked through the lens of Iberian and Latino machismo culture. The fourth and fifth questions critically explore alternative problem representations and the difficulties created by the represented problem (Bacchi, 2009). We reflected on the silenced perspectives in the policies as well as the possible implications. Finally, question six builds on question three and aims to elucidate the way the problem representation became dominant and how it might be challenged (Bacchi, 2009). Our final reflections on machismo culture and a questioning of the problem representation can be found in the discussion section.

‘What’s the problem represented to be?’: an approach to policy analysis (Bacchi, 2009)

  1. What’s the ‘problem’ represented to be in a specific policy?

  2. What presuppositions or assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?

  3. How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?

  4. What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?

  5. What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?

  6. How/where has this representation of the ‘problem’ been produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?

Publicly available policy documents published by the national governments of Argentina and Spain related to increased GBV during COVID-19 lockdown were identified. To ensure the full inclusion of all appropriate policy texts for both countries, relevant government bodies on GBV-related issues were identified. Relevant documents and texts were retrieved from the websites of these key actors. The search words used were based on formulations and terms used in a collection of previous research studies of GBV (McGuigan and Middlemiss, 2005; Kelly et al, 2010; Sapra et al, 2014) and news articles about GBV during the COVID-19 lockdown (Graham-Harrison et al, 2020; Kottasová and Di Donato, 2020; Wagers, 2020). The search terms in both English and Spanish are set out in Table 2.

Table 2:

Search terms in English and Spanish

Government webpages Spain and Argentina
English search words
  • violence OR; family violence OR; interpersonal violence OR; intimate partner violence OR; violent partner OR; abusive partner OR; abusive relationship OR; violent abuse OR; abuse OR; domestic abuse OR; domestic violence OR; homicide OR; violence against women OR; gender violence OR; wife battering OR; sexual violence OR; sexual abuse OR; sexual harm OR; sexual assault OR; rape OR; physical violence OR; physical abuse OR; physical harm OR; physical assault OR; psychological violence OR; psychological abuse OR; psychological harm OR; psychological assault OR; emotional violence OR; emotional abuse OR; emotional harm

  • AND

  • lockdown OR; quarantine OR; confinement OR; confined to home OR; movement restrictions OR; COVID-19 OR; corona OR; coronavirus OR; epidemic OR; pandemic OR; social isolation OR; social distancing

Spanish search words
  • violencia OR; violencia en la familia OR; violencia interpersonal OR; violencia de pareja OR; violencia en la pareja OR; pareja abusiva OR; relación abusiva OR; abuso violento OR; abuso OR; abuso domestico OR; violencia domestica OR; homicidio OR; violencia contra la mujer OR; violencia de genero OR; golpear a la esposa OR; violencia sexual OR; abuso sexual OR; daño sexual OR; agresión sexual OR; violación OR; violencia física OR; abuso físico OR; daño físico OR; agresión físico OR; violencia psicológica OR; abuso psicológico OR; daño psicológico OR; agresión psicológico OR; violencia emocional OR; abuso emocional OR; daño emocional

  • AND

  • cierre total OR; cuarentena OR; confinamiento OR; confinamiento en casa OR; restricciones desplazamiento OR; COVID-19 OR; corona OR; coronavirus OR; epidemia OR; pandemia OR; aislamiento social OR; distancia social

Analysis of the policies was conducted in line with the Bacchi framework. The questions posed by the WPR approach were repeatedly adhered to the different policies in order to dig deeper into the underlying meaning of the texts. The analytic strategy underlying this process was an inductive approach. In inductive analysis as described by Thomas (2006), the findings arise from multiple readings and an interpretation of the text by the researcher. A priori expectations about findings are set aside. Categories are developed into a model containing key themes. Hence, inductive analysis allowed us to distinguish emergent key themes in the policy documents. The analysis was conducted by the first author and reviewed by the second author. Ideas were exchanged on the key themes that were extracted from the policy text. These themes were related to problem construction, terminology and silencing of key actors.

Results

Spanish and Argentinian governments developed, published, and disseminated several policy documents as national responses to increased levels of GBV during COVID-19 lockdown. In Argentina, the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity launched public campaigns, disseminated a guide to access support in situations of GBV, and another with recommendations for provincial and municipal governments on the implementation of gender and diversity policies. In addition, a multisectoral initiative resulted in an instructive guide for police handling GBV complaints during COVID-19 lockdown.

In Spain the Ministry of Equality, the government body which, among others, is responsible for the country’s policies related to LGBTI+ and gender violence, developed the following key policy documents: A Contingency Plan that prioritises services for victims of violence against women, an instant WhatsApp messaging service, a Royal Decree Law 12/2020 on urgent measures regarding the protection and assistance to victims of GBV (Jefatura del Estado, 2020), a guide of action for women experiencing GBV while being confined to their homes and a public awareness campaign. All policy documents including their original titles in Spanish and shortened titles for in-text reference are found in Table 3.

Table 3:

Overview of policy documents on GBV in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown by Spain and Argentina

Issuing government bodyTitle of policy documentType of documentDocument languageDate of issue
ArgentinaMinisterio Público Fiscal, Ministerio Público de la Defensa, Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos, Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad, Ministerio de Seguridad (2020) [Public Prosecution Service; Ministry of Defence; Ministry of Justice and Human Rights; Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity; Ministry of Security](1) Toma de denuncias por violencia de género durante aislamiento preventivo obligatorio por Covid-19 [Taking complaints for gender violence during mandatory preventive isolation by Covid-19; Instructions for police personnel and complaint form]

In-text reference:Instructive guide for complaint taking during isolation for police
GuideSpanish26 May 2020
Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad (2020b) [Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity](2) Recomendaciones para gobiernos provinciales y municipales en materia de políticas de género y diversidad en el contexto de la emergencia sanitaria por el covid-19

[Recommendations for provincial and municipal governments regarding gender and diversity policies in the context of the health emergency by covid-19]

In-text reference:Covid-19 GBV Recommendations
ReportSpanish15 April 2020
(3) Medidas en el marco de la emergencia sanitaria: Medidas de asistencia integral ante situaciones de violencia por motivos de género

[Measures in the framework of the health emergency: Integral assistance measures in situations of gender-based violence]

In-text reference:Integral GBV assistance measures
ReportSpanish15 April 2020
SpainMinisterio de Igualdad (2020a, 2020b, 2020c, 2020d, 2020e) [Ministry of Equality](1) Guía de actuación para mujeres que estén sufriendo violencia de género en situación de permanencia domiciliaria derivada del estado de alarma por COVID 19 [Guide for women suffering gender violence under domicile confinement stemming from the state of emergency resulting from COVID-19]

In-text reference:Guide for women suffering GBV
GuideSpanish26 March 2020
(2) Ministry of Equality promotes a Contingency Plan against gender violence in the face of the COVID-19 crisis

In-text reference:Press release on GBV during Covid-19
Press releaseEnglish27 March 2020
(3) Guía rápida para víctimas de violencia intragénero durante el estado de alarma [Quick guide for victims of intragender violence during the period of the alarm state]

In-text reference:Intragender victim quick guide
GuideSpanish27 April 2020
(4) Guía de recursos para hacer frente a la exclusión y a discriminaciones por orientación sexual e identidad de género durante la crisis por COVID-19 [Resource guide to deal with exclusion and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity during the COVID-19 crisis]

In-text reference:Resource guide for LGBTI+
GuideSpanish27 April 2020
(5) The gender approach, key in COVID-19 response

In-text reference:The gender approach
ReportEnglish7 May 2020

The analysis of these policies, using the Bacchi framework, was carried out through repeated application of the six questions and revisiting each policy at different stages in the research. This inductive process resulted in the identification of four partially overlapping themes through the lens of the Bacchi approach. Our first observation was that GBV was not clearly defined in the policies and terminology had a partially (de)gendered discourse while focusing on female ‘victims’ of violence. Second, the role of men as perpetrators was ‘silenced’. This resulted in the problem construction weighing exclusively on the aftermath of the violence rather than the root causes, the third observation. Finally, violence against LGBTI+ was addressed by policies of both countries yet in different manners. We look at each of these key themes in turn, illuminating their implications.

Definitions and terminology

The policy documents of neither Argentina nor Spain provide a definition of gender-based violence. Moreover, in both country’s policies the term GBV is only accompanied by gendered expressions for the affected, that is, women. It is explicitly stated that it is women who experience GBV, and in case of Argentinian policies also LGBTI+. At the same time, the perpetrator-end of GBV (usually men) is (de)gendered, that is, the policy documents never mention men nor males to refer to the perpetrator. The Spanish government includes the terms ‘abusive partner’ and ‘aggressor’ in their policy documents, as in The gender approach. This chosen terminology results in mere recognition of perpetrators, rather than a critical gendered engagement with the role of men in GBV and ‘silences’ the fact that most perpetrators are men.

The Argentinian government chooses not to appoint the source of the violence at all. The total absence of the mentioning of perpetrators in the Argentinian policies thus render men somewhat invisible. For example, the Argentinian COVID-19 GBV Recommendations policy advises to:

Garantizar la libre circulación de las mujeres y personas LGBTI+ que solas o junto a sus hijos e hijas, y/o con las personas que las asistan, salgan de sus domicilios a los fines de realizar las pertinentes denuncias penales respecto de hechos de violencia o se dirijan a requerir auxilio, asistencia o protección debido a la situación deviolencia que se encuentren transitando. [Guarantee the free movement of women and LGBTI+ who alone or with their sons and daughters and/or with the people who assist them, leave their homes for purposes of making the pertinent criminal complaints regarding acts of violence or are directed to require aid, assistance or protection due to the situation of violence that they are transiting.] (Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad, 2020b: 4)

In this case, the affected are the first mentioned (women and LGBTI+) whereas a gendered perpetrator is omitted and substituted by a reference to ‘acts of violence’ or ‘the situation of violence that they are transiting’. Relating to another terminological finding, Spain and Argentina’s policies used language and content to construct the problem of GBV as a need for support to, what they term ‘victims’ of violence. An example is already apparent in the title of the Spanish policy: Guía rápida para víctimas de violencia intragénero durante el estado de alarma [Quick guide for victims of intragender violence during the period of the alarm state]. Argentina’s COVID-19 GBV Recommendations specifically recommends not using the term ‘victim’ in policies on GBV:

Algunas recomendaciones son: evitar referirse a las personas que atraviesan violencia por motivos de género como ‘víctimas’; no adjetivar de manera excesiva, ni apelar al concepto de ‘sufrimiento’ al referir a estas situaciones. [Some recommendations are: avoid referring to people who experience gender-based violence as ‘victims’; do not use adjectives excessively, nor appeal to the concept of ‘suffering’ when referring to these situations.] (Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad, 2020b: 7)

While the term ‘victim’ is never used in the Integral GBV assistance measures policy, the Instructive guide for complaint taking during isolation for police did not take this advice into account and systematically refers to people experiencing GBV as ‘victims’. In machismo culture a woman would not be considered a ‘victim’ of her husband’s violence since it is expected of him to give and her to receive.

Increase in male violent behaviour

Another ‘silenced’ aspect in the policy responses of both countries is the increased violent behaviour of males during lockdown. In the Press release on GBV during COVID-19, the government stated that the Spanish Contingency Plan will:

develop a series of strategic and operational measures that will help prevent, control and minimize the possible negative consequences in the lives of many victims of gender-based violence resulting from confinement measures. (Ministerio de Igualdad, 2020b: 1)

With this statement, increased prevalence of GBV is explained as resulting from ‘confinement measures’: the actual direct cause of GBV, which is violent behaviour during confinement, is being ‘silenced’ and ignored. Neither Spanish nor Argentinian governments address or condemn the increased violent behaviour of male aggressors in any policy document. Alternatively, thinking of the way the problem is not represented to be caused by male violent behaviour, this can be argued to reflect the dominant culture of acceptance of male violence in machismo rooted societies.

Focus on aftermath of gender-based violence

This focus on the receiver of violence and the aftermath of the violence is also evident in other aspects of the policy. The Argentinian Government’s COVID-19 GBV Recommendations, for example, advertises to:

Garantizar el funcionamiento de los Hogares de Protección, refugios y/o casas de abrigo, como servicios esenciales durante la cuarentena, y fortalecer todas las estrategias de protección a las personas en situación de violencia por motivos de género. [Guarantee the functioning of Homes of Protection, shelters and/or safe houses as essential services during quarantine and strengthen all protection strategies for people in situations of gender-based violence.] (Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad, 2020b: 4)

Other examples of advice in this policy document that are directed to the aftermath of GBV are; the strengthening of social and economic assistance programmes for people experiencing GBV, guaranteeing remote communication services such as WhatsApp, e-mail and mobile apps for people experiencing GBV, the visibility of information about these assistance programmes and services, safe and free movement of people who experienced GBV despite confinement measures and so on. In similar lines, the Spanish Guide for women suffering GBV and the Intragender victim quick guide are focused on mitigating the (aftermath) effects for women and LGBTI+ living in situations of GBV, for example; helpline and legal advice services, psychological assistance over WhatsApp, emergency phone numbers and an application to reach out to the police, the declaration of safe houses as essential services, the absence of sanctions if you leave the house in case of an assault and instructions on how to make a formal complaint.

The inclusion and exclusion of sexual and reproductive services as essential services in relation to GBV also reflects the focus on the immediate physical consequences in the aftermath of GBV. In the Argentinian COVID-19 GBV Recommendations the strengthening of mechanisms to provide contraceptive methods and emergency contraception, to ensure rapid access to legal abortion and the dissemination of specific information on available resources is included as advice. In Spain, however, access to sexual and reproductive health services is not considered in the domain of GBV in private spaces.

Perspective of LGBTI+

Interestingly, both Spain and Argentina explicitly devote policy on violence in the LGBTI+ community during confinement measures. However, they do so using different approaches. In the Spanish policies separate guidelines exist for GBV and intragender-based violence (IGBV), indicating a distinct problem representation between violence in heterosexual and homosexual couples. The LGBTI+ community is not once addressed in the policies on GBV in the Guide for women suffering GBV, while ‘women’ are continuously addressed. For IGBV, the audience is specifically defined as same-sex couples in the Intragender victim quick guide. Moreover, in contrary to the absent definition of the main concept GBV in the other policies, a definition of IGBV is put forward in the latter. Intragender-based violence is defined as violence which:

en sus diferentes formas, se produce en el seno de las relaciones afectivas y sexuales entre personas del mismo sexo. Constituye un ejercicio de poder cuya finalidad es dominar y controlar a la víctima. [in its different forms, occurs within affective and sexual relationships between people of the same sex. It constitutes an exercise of power whose purpose is to dominate and control the victim.] (Ministerio de Igualdad, 2020c: 2)

Moreover, it adds to this definition that the genesis of this abuse does not lie in machismo, as it does with GBV, while this relation between machismo and GBV was not once elucidated in any of the other policies. Meanwhile, the Resource guide for LGBTI+, refers transsexual women who experience gender violence to the Guide for women suffering GBV. The types of violence that constitute IGBV are not explained, but a short list of presumed causes of IGBV is included.

Argentina’s policy documents on the other hand refer explicitly to both women and the LGBTI+ community within the same policies. The report COVID-19 GBV Recommendations emphasises the need for accessible, inclusive and simple language:

La accesibilidad de los mensajes que se emitan en fundamental para su eficacia. Se sugiere que se utilice lenguaje inclusive y que los mensajes audiovisuales cuenten con subtítulos. Además, es importante incluir a identidades no binarias y disidentes en el discurso. Las violencias por motivos de género no afectan solo a las mujeres. También otras identidades las atraviesan. Idealmente, recomendamos referirse a ‘personas en situación de violencia por motivos de género’ o ‘mujeres y personas LGBTI+ en situación de violencia por motivos de género’. [The accessibility of the messages that are issued is fundamental for its effectiveness. Inclusive language is suggested and audiovisual messages should have subtitles. Also, it is important to include non-binary and dissident identities in the discourse. Gender-based violence does not affect only women. Also other identities face it. Ideally, we recommend referring to ‘people in a situation of gender-based violence’ or ‘women and LGBTI+ people in a situation of gender-based violence’.] (Ministerio de las Mujeres, Géneros y Diversidad, 2020b: 7)

However, similar to the Spanish GBV policy documents for heterosexual women, the Argentinian policies do not define the concept of GBV and the types of violence included in the concept.

The Intragender victim quick guide covers detailed and extensive information on access to health services, issuing a complaint of violence, protection orders and rights of the victim, which is different from the Guide for women suffering GBV. While the Guide for women suffering GBV focuses more on the wellbeing and direct relief of women experiencing GBV, the Intragender victim quick guide takes more of a judicial approach. Policy of this kind includes the construction of norms about what is needed by the LGBTI+ community versus heterosexual women experiencing GBV.

Discussion

The term gender-based violence outlines a power relation with gender at its core (Hearn and McKie, 2010). It is significant that both countries deliberately choose to omit (‘silence’) one gender from the equation, deriding the term GBV by illuminating the female ‘victim’ and not the male aggressor. The partial (de)gendering discourse of GBV on the receiver-end but not the perpetrator-end is not a neutral choice but a powerful one. The effect of this partial (de)gendered language, is that GBV is portrayed as a women’s, not a men’s issue, which places the burden of responsibility to act on women. It expects women to be the ones to, for example, seek assistance and leave their house. As discussed earlier it also exacerbates feelings of low self-worth in the receiver of the violence, termed as ‘victims’ in Spanish policies as well as one of the Argentinian policies (see Fohring, 2018). There is, thus, a clear choice by both countries to focus on the person who is experiencing GBV rather than the person responsible for the violence. Following machismo ideals, GBV is not a problem since it is accepted by men that they may need to use violence to maintain the culture of supremacy.

We argue, therefore, that such terminology renders aggression that is based on gender relations as ‘unproblematic’; the behaviour is not contested but presumed as per machismo culture. Both countries ‘silence’ the deep-rooted causes of GBV and take social structures that cause violence against women and LGBTI+ for granted. Although the Spanish policy on IGBV chooses a concept definition that implies machismo is one of the root causes of GBV, the same Ministry of Equality chooses to release a policy on GBV, explicitly not addressing traditions of machismo as driver of GBV. In line with this, critical engagement with gender, male behaviour and violence is missing in the policy responses of Argentina as well as Spain.

Myhill (2017) argues that measuring both acts of physical violence and associated non-physical abusive context more accurately is key to shifting the focus from women as ‘victims’ to men as perpetrators. Heilman, Herbert and Paul-Gera (2014) take an in-depth approach to understanding this context taking evidence from five countries to answer the question: How does a boy grow up to commit rape?

In a research article on working with men and boys to prevent GBV, Peacock and Barker (2014) look at the potential to engage men and boys as part of the solution to end male violent behaviour. They argue that harmful gender norms that prescribe male perceptions of what it means to be a man encourage men to exert GBV, and that GBV prevention strategies should challenge aspects of men’s behaviour and constructed masculinities that harm women. The United Nations Population Fund (2009) also promotes partnering with men to end GBV. Their strategies aim to address male resistance and apathy towards the related male aggression with a focus on male-dominated institutions and government institutions to promote men to take action to address the root causes of GBV. A toolkit developed by HeforShe (2020), named The Barbershop toolbox, also provides a practical approach to mobilise men and boys towards gender equality. The Männerberatung Wien [Men’s Counselling Centre Vienna] in Austria is another example of a policy with the purpose of mitigating GBV by addressing the root cause, namely men’s violent behaviour, rather than the consequence or aftermath of violence. On 20 April 2020, the Men’s Counselling Centre Vienna announced the launch of a national hotline for men to seek assistance to manage situations of violence at home that could get or have already got out of control (ORF Vienna, 2020). The Austrian nationwide hotline offers crisis intervention, de-escalation and conflict counselling (Männerinfo, 2020).

Our findings indicate that, building on these strategies to address male violent behaviour and challenging the machismo culture and harmful gender norms, would require a paradigm shift from the current focus on the woman as a ‘victim’ in Argentina and Spain. Indeed, if both governments continue to ascribe the cause of increased GBV to the confinement measures, and not explicitly address male violent behaviour, men’s accountability and responsibility for their use of violence is unlikely to change.

The implications of COVID-19 mitigation strategies on female vulnerability were not addressed in the policy documents. Regulations that restricted companionship during outdoor exercise, shopping and so on, resulting in higher risk of gender related attacks gained visibility in other countries (NPR 50, 2021). However, Spain and Argentina responses to increased GBV focused solely on confinement in the home.

The study focused on policy texts related to emergency policies set in place at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Implementation of the policies and those of regional and local level and the role and influence of civil society in Argentina and Spain were not included in the analysis, this can be considered a limitation of the study.

Conclusion

The existence of the policy documents in Spain and Argentina clearly indicates recognition of increased GBV linked to COVID-19 lockdowns and acknowledgement that this is a problem to be dealt with. These policies, however, do not contain a clear definition of GBV from the outset. Our analysis showed that, despite absence of clear articulation of what GBV is, the (de)gendered language used in the policies points to women as ‘victims’ with men, the perpetrators, silenced. This framing of the problem resulted in policies focused on the aftermath not the root cause of the increased GBV during the COVID-19 lockdowns and is linked to machismo culture. A metaphorical (and sometimes literal) ‘sticking plaster’ was used to address the problem and is linked to machismo culture. While this short-term strategy may comfort and/or provide short-term assistance to (some) of the affected ‘victims’, it does not even attempt to recognise, let alone solve, the cause of the problem, male aggression. We consider this a missed opportunity to use the COVID-19 pandemic experience to ‘build back better’. This will entail acceleration of the paradigm shift from females needing to protect themselves to men needing to refrain from physically, sexually and emotionally abusing women. Although GBV or IGBV among the LGBTI+ community is recognised, Spain and Argentina included and approached the issue vastly different in their policies (united or separated). Although for each strategy there is something to say, it is crucial to consider GBV/IGBV among LGBTI+ as an indispensable component of the paradigm shift to come.

Moving away from the machismo paradigm that condones male aggression particularly towards female household members, we recommend that both Spanish and Argentinean policymakers consider framing the problem as one of increased male aggression in this ‘Shadow Pandemic’. This would result in the design of policies to support men in the correction or management of violent tendencies towards women. Furthermore, this approach will contribute towards strengthening the paradigm shift to make Spain and Argentina safer places for women and LGBTI+ during pandemics, ‘building back better’ in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest

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  • 1 University of Maastricht, , The Netherlands
  • | 2 University of Maastricht, , The Netherlands
  • | 3 Context in Development, , United Kingdom

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