Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations (UN) has warned that the limited gains made in the past decades on gender equality are at risk of being rolled back. An area of great concern is the perpetration and experience of gender-based violence (GBV) – a pervasive human rights violation. The UN states that the deepening of economic and social stress, restricting movement and mandating social isolation due to the pandemic has led to an exponential increase in GBV.
Evidence demonstrates that pandemics provide an enabling environment that exacerbates or sparks diverse forms of violence perpetrated against women. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been widespread coverage in media reports and anecdotal evidence pointing to an increased risk of GBV. Although reliable data on prevalence is lacking, evidence from rigorous studies has largely confirmed these fears. While there is increasing primary survey data, many analyses still rely on data of reported cases of violence against women (VAW) during or post-pandemic. These statistics are known to only represent the tip of the iceberg. In fact, pre-COVID-19 estimates of GBV prevalence based on health systems data or police reports have likely been underestimated by 11-to-128 fold. This is because only 7 percent of women globally who survived physical or sexual violence reported it to formal sources.
We now know that the shadow pandemic of GBV is fuelled by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Containment measures that involve stay-at-home orders have led to increased perpetration of domestic violence as survivors have had to isolate with their abusive partners. In addition, job loss and income insecurity caused by the pandemic has further affected mental health and stressors at the household level, which have and will likely continue to increase intimate partner violence (IPV) and child maltreatment. UNFPA estimates that for every three months of lockdown, an additional 15 million women and girls will be subject to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner.
We must remember that this is not a new problem. GBV was already a pandemic of great magnitude before COVID-19. Following decades of struggle by the women’s rights movement to recognize GBV as a human rights concern, it was in 1992 when VAW was recognized as a form of discrimination by the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) committee (via General Recommendation No. 19). The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared VAW a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, with an estimated 1 in 3 women worldwide having experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, resulting in significant physical, sexual, psychological harm and suffering.
Following the UN Secretary-General’s call on GBV and COVID-19, 124 UN member states and observers have pledged their commitment to making the prevention and redress of GBV a key part of their national and global responses. Several governments have incorporated GBV considerations in their COVID-19 responses. A large number of these measures include increasing hotlines, WhatsApp numbers and signal alerts to trigger domestic violence response services. Digital innovations are also being increasingly relied upon for reporting VAW, although these may be limited to women with access to mobile phones and internet.
A number of countries have included shelter and crisis centres as essential life-saving services during lockdowns, and spaces have been repurposed as temporary shelters in many cities. To maintain access to justice services for VAW, several countries are using virtual courts and online legal counsels.
The UNDP and UN Women have launched a COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker which highlights government responses with integrated gender lens, including standalone measures to address VAW. The tracker lists among addressing VAW measures, for example, a protocol in Argentina to contemplate police intervention from a gender perspective and present a scheme for police forces to receive complaints from GBV survivors. In another example, courts across Australia can impose electronic monitoring on offenders and offer online access to restraining orders.
The response measures we have seen so far have focused more on bolstering first response systems to meet the immediate needs of survivors of violence, and prevent their continued experience of violence. However, we know from past experiments and evidence that these interventions are unlikely to be a solution to change violent behaviour on their own.
In terms of primary prevention, the most common and promising measure has been the widespread introduction or expansion of social protection measures for socio-economically vulnerable households. According to recent estimates, over one billion people have benefited from some form of social protection to date in the form of paid leave, income support and/or cash transfers, among others. Although these are not devised as GBV prevention policies, evidence has demonstrated that economic support can have a very significant impact on preventing VAW. A review of nine countries finds increasing evidence that cash transfers decrease IPV. In another example, cash transfers to poor households reduced IPV in over 70% of the 22 studies reviewed.
To understand how GBV measures could be strengthened during the pandemic, we focus our attention on four critical factors: primary prevention mechanisms, gender data and statistics, targeted budgetary allocations, and equitable coverage of GBV issues.
With regards to the first critical factor, alongside effectively responding to the needs of GBV survivors, which we are seeing during the pandemic, primary prevention interventions also need to be prioritised, such as gender-responsive social and economic measures to limit risk factors associated with GBV. Social protection measures provide a significant opportunity to respond to the GBV pandemic at the scale required. These measures can be made gender responsive by making simple design and implementation adaptions to them.
Contrary to the belief that the social changes required to transform prevailing gendered cultural norms and prevent GBV can only happen in the long run, there is now extensive evidence that GBV can be prevented within programmatic timeframes. For example, practitioners and researchers over the last two decades have developed and rigorously tested prevention interventions. We now know that VAW can be prevented through a range of interventions, including economic transfer programmes; economic and social empowerment interventions; transforming gender relations within partners; parenting programmes; community activism to shift harmful gender attitudes, roles and social norms; and school-based interventions, among others.
Second, the existing gaps in gender data and statistics must be closed and not further widened in the pandemic. GBV cases already suffer from under-reporting, which might exacerbate further during the pandemic if prevailing data systems/models are not looked into to fill current data gaps. At the same time, efforts to collect primary data during the pandemic must pay additional attention to and report on ethics to ensure a ‘do no harm’ approach. We must not end up increasing the risks to survivors in order to fill these data gaps.
Third, it is estimated that a total of USD 10 trillion is being planned by governments globally to mitigate the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is currently no information on how much budgets from these stimulus packages have been allocated towards GBV measures (both new as well as existing resources). While some countries, like Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom, have announced targeted budgetary allocations towards addressing and preventing GBV, these budget data are not yet available for many countries. These limitations will only add on to the existing gender data gaps in effectively tracking outcomes and impact of investments in GBV policy measures during as well as post-pandemic.
Finally, while there is a growing understanding on how the pandemic is increasing IPV, there is much less coverage and analysis of the heightened GBV risk and cases across other public and private spaces and among diverse sexual and gender minorities. For example, we do know that in the pre-COVID world, LGBTQI people experienced sexual violence at similar or higher rates than heterosexuals. Girls and young women with disabilities face up to 10 times more GBV than those without disabilities. Indigenous girls, adolescents and young women face a higher prevalence of violence. Sex workers face high levels of violence, stigma, discrimination and other human-rights violations. During lockdowns, women and girls are also at a higher risk of cyber violence as they turn to increased internet usage for work, school and social activities. Levels of sexual violence and other forms of violence also tend to grow more acute in humanitarian settings. This necessitates that all forms of GBV be adequately covered across the many challenging, diverse and difficult humanitarian and development contexts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with many challenges but also with an opportunity to enhance, update, innovate and reconfigure our efforts to effectively and equitably address and prevent all forms of GBV. As governments, international development community and civil society come together ever more strongly to address GBV amid this pandemic, the momentum must not slow down.
Shrijna Dixon is a development practitioner and social researcher with over ten years of experience in gender responsive strategy and planning, advocacy and partnerships, monitoring and evaluation, knowledge management, and research and training. Dixon is a former programme consultant for governance, national planning, and peace and security for UN Women Asia and the Pacific. She is currently working as a policy intern with UNU-IIGH. She holds a Master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science.