by: Emma Louise Backe, George Washington University

On March 26, 2020, South Africa went into a nation-wide, mandatory lock-down to control the spread of the coronavirus, a disease many feared would impact the hundreds of thousands of immuno-compromised South Africans with HIV, tuberculosis, and other chronic illnesses. While the militarysupervised lock-down was intended to protect against the perils of disease transmission outside the home, the government did not account for the perils of violence within the home, the hazards and harms of intimate partner violence (IPV) for those suddenly and abruptly trapped with their abusers with limited means of escape. Escalating rates of domestic violence were quickly recognized by UN Women as a “shadow pandemic” within the “global contagion of COVID-19.” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa similarly moved to declare domestic violence a “second pandemic,” linking intimate partner violence and intimate femicide to COVID-19 as mutually reinforcing, devastating epidemics.  

#JustSayNo Protest, University of Cape Town Upper Campus, August 2019

#JustSayNo Protest, University of Cape Town Upper Campus, August 2019. Photo by: Emma Louise Backe

As a PhD student studying the phenomenon of gender-based violence (GBV) in Cape Town, South Africa prior to theemergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, this sudden “spike” in violence and international attention to domestic violence might seem like a unique and generative research opportunity. While my plans to travel to Cape Town in June 2020 were delayed indefinitely, my fieldsite in the Cape Flats1 was in the midst of addressing these two pandemics, guaranteeing the health of their staff while attempting to continue to provide services to survivors of domestic violence. I could have scheduled interviews and focus groups with staff members and front-line workers to learn about how coronavirus and the lock-down was impacting survivor services and contributing to heightened rates of violence within the home. But service providers were also buffeted by the vulnerabilities of inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), governmental permissions as “essential workers,” limited and often times insufficient funding, and the necessity of adapting remote services while maintaining a continuum of care for those in need. Many organizations working with survivors, including those in my fieldsite, were in the midst of multiple crises, with barely enough support and resources to meet the needs of survivors.  

In this context, there is the opportunity to question the pace, presence, and purpose of certain kinds of research. Although applied anthropological fieldwork of the kind I was hoping to conduct in Cape Town is intended to contribute to the community where the research is carried out, its applications and positive impacts might take many months, or years, to manifest. The tempo of change and the possibilities of transformation through qualitative research require a great deal of patience, representing different horizons of expectation for research outcomes and benefits between scholars and their interlocutors. The potential uses of my qualitative ethnographic research had to be modulated by the demands placed upon my research participants and partners, the time it takes to participate in an interview, time that might have been otherwise spent helping a woman file for a protection order at the police station or develop a safety plan if her partner became abusive. In addition to the time and emotional commitments interviews would have entailed, practitioners in the GBV sector cautioned against traditional forms of data collection, with service providers as well as survivors. Although I’d planned to interview clients at my fieldsite—women who were seeking counseling and care for intimate partner violence—conducting interviews with survivors stuck at home presented a number of ethical challenges, particularly if discussing experiences of violence might be met with retribution by an abusive partner or family member. Additionally, survivors in the midst of a violent situation do not necessarily want to be studied—instead, they needed access to support systems, emergency shelters, and mental health resources. While research on survivor experiences might contribute to data which could ultimately inform systems and infrastructures during another surge of cases, it primarily represented an added burden, and even a safety risk, to an already challenging situation.  

Rape Crisis Sign

Participant observation in Observatory, Cape Town. Photo by: Emma Louise Backe

Instead of interviewing service providers and survivors in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, therefore, I met with the Executive Director and Policy Manager of my fieldsite to discuss what research they needed as a survivor-run service delivery organization. While the Executive Director was busy adapting remote capabilities, launching WhatsApp support groups, and coordinating with police stations to create safe transportation systems for survivors, she also wanted to know how other organizations—domestically and internationally—working with survivors were responding. What, she asked me, were the alternative models of service delivery and technological support that were being rolled out and finding success elsewhere? Given this request, and the ethical challenges I’ve outlined, my research pivoted to a secondary analysis of white papers, policy briefs, expedited peer reviewed articles, and news coverage of gender-based violence and COVID-19, in South Africa and globally. As I collected guidance documents released by the UN and attended digital dialogues with leaders from UNICEF and the WHO on the role of gender within COVID-19, I tracked discourses employed to describe the roles and vulnerabilities of women in the pandemic, conversations which often emphasized an ideology of “protectionism.” I watched as advocates employed financial arguments for why investing in GBV services and prevention programs made economic sense to governments and international stakeholders. And I documented how humanitarian agencies like Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) emphasized pre-existing adaptations and technical guidance for addressing GBV under emergency circumstances, noting that while coronavirus was certainly new, the crisis of domestic violence was not.  

Remote fieldwork

Remote fieldwork. Photo by: Emma Louise Backe

Through this process, I compiled a database of the 150+ articles, podcasts, news stories, and white papers I have collected. This database would contribute to my fieldsite’s internal knowledge management system, an addition to their informational infrastructure which was also forced to adapt digitally due to the coronavirus. I synthesized these materials into a learning brief, one that would provide a sense of the global scope of data on rates of domestic violence during COVID-19 since March 2020; the challenges faced by survivors and service providers in accessing and delivering care; and the leading recommendations and insights for adaptations and alternative support strategies employed by front-line organizations. This learning brief also identified strategic documents and technical briefs that could be used by my fieldsite to inform their own service delivery protocols and strategic plan moving forward, emphasizing resources written by and oriented around an African context. The learning brief is being used by the Executive Director to mobilize coalition meetings throughout the Western Cape of other service providers, putting global findings in conversation with local articulations of care, need, and improvisation on the ground.  

Under conditions of extreme need and precarity, anthropologists must consider how to practice pragmatic solidarity, addressing the immediate complaints or requests of their interlocutors as part of their research praxis. Sometimes this manifests through material resources or medical care, as in the case of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work. In other instances, solidarity emerges through a locally situated and grounded ethics of concern that is attentive to the particular temporalities and extractive logics of academic research. In these cases, research is oriented not by the “tyranny of the urgent” or the neoliberal demands of the academy, but rather by the priorities and needs of the community participating in the research. As Vincanne Adams, Nancy J. Burke and Ian Whitmarsh describe an approach to slow research, “it entails working with an ethic or set of values and strategies that valorize different things from the emergent norms” (2014, 180). In this way, “slow research takes the local as a starting point” (Adams et al., 2014, 181), recognizing that the speed and shape of research must be informed by experts on the ground. 

Slow research also invites us to “pause” in the present. As a PhD candidate who is supposed to be conducting doctoral dissertation research, this sense of suspension seems antithetical to the dissertation project, my “value” as a scholar, as well as the public or perish mentality of academia more broadly. But I am also a student living through my own emergency, experiencing the perils of coronavirus in deeply personal and exhausting ways. Altering the speed of my research not only acknowledges the personal dimensions of my scholarship, but also asks me to work slowly and carefully to build up relationships and trust with my fieldsite from afar. I could have continued my research as planned, but I might have alienated key interlocutors in the process, placing my own research schedule above those of the community I hoped to support. Instead, I returned to anthropological principles of deep hanging out and “patient attentiveness” (Adams et al., 2014, 189), remembering that this commitment to the longue durée of research was the reason I became an anthropologist in the first place.

  1. For the purposes of privacy and confidentiality, I don’t provide any identifying information about my fieldsite. This is an additional mode of protection for the survivors and service providers participating in the research, particularly since gender-based violence is already such an intimate invasion of a person’s privacy.