Opinion: Tackling the rise of violence against women during COVID-19

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A Rohingya woman at a refugee settlement for widows, orphans, and women who have been separated from their husbands in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: UN Women / Allison Joyce / CC BY-NC-ND

The gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions in many countries feels liberating. But for some, it may literally be lifesaving. For every three months of lockdown due to COVID-19, an estimated 15 million more people will suffer from gender-based violence around the world. In countries where the virus is in earlier stages of transmission, women and girls fear for their lives and we must act now to support them.

In the International Rescue Committee’s latest report “The Shadow Pandemic,” about the sprawling and overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, we find that even before the coronavirus outbreak, a quarter of women and girls had experienced sexual, physical, psychological or another form of violence. Eighty-one percent of these women and girls had been subjected to intimate partner violence. With the introduction of lockdown measures, as COVID-19 cases are confirmed in the camps, the danger will rise as women and girls are locked inside their tiny, temporary homes.

Why focusing on gender-based violence is a priority in a crisis

Gender-based violence rises in almost any emergency — but this time, lockdowns make the situation even more dangerous. Experts explain how aid organizations can help.

We have seen this happen in other epidemics; when Ebola escalated in West Africa, so too did incidents of sexual violence. In El Salvador, since the pandemic began, our partners have already reported a 70% increase in women seeking gender-based violence support services.

Many organizations, like IRC, have had to adapt their programs in order to be able to continue identifying and supporting survivors despite lockdowns and other social distancing measures.

One challenge is ensuring that survivors of gender-based violence still have channels to report to.

In the camps in Bangladesh, worryingly the reports of incidents of gender-based violence have actually decreased since lockdown started, suggesting women and girls are suffering in silence. In many places like Jordan and Uganda, we’ve opened hotlines to report abuse. In Cote D'Ivoire, we’ve trained general medical staff who might see sexual assault survivors for other reasons to detect the signs of abuse and know how to refer to gender-based violence, or GBV, response specialists.

Another challenge is maintaining existing support programs for survivors. We are continuing counseling and other services in-person where possible. For example, limiting the number of people who can access our safe spaces in order to maintain social distancing. But it is also important to think creatively, for example with phone-based support.

Caseworkers in Uganda use a “verbal password” at the beginning of phone calls; if a survivor uses the password then the caseworker knows it’s not safe to talk and starts a new conversation about COVID-19 preventative measures. If the perpetrator overhears, they assume it’s one of the government’s information services and never suspect that the survivor was seeking help. In a few instances, the alleged perpetrator has even been invited to listen in to the conversation.

These are just a few examples. The challenges are many, and we are joined by our fellow aid agencies, local partners, and beneficiaries in responding in many different ways. But aid agencies can’t provide the necessary support without the backing of donors and partners in turn. And with a focus on the COVID-19 crisis at home, the support for people suffering its consequences overseas has been slow to materialize.

Three things need to change.

First, we urge donors, including governments, to prioritize GBV within their response to COVID-19 and to use their influence within the multilateral system to do likewise. Funding for women and girls doesn’t happen automatically; in recent years just 0.12% of global humanitarian funding went to GBV services. Unless sustained commitment is made at the U.N. level through the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, interventions to support the safety and resilience of women and girls will not be funded.

Second, women and girls must be supported to participate fully in the design and delivery of COVID-19 response programs at every level — from global to local. Listening and responding to their preferences and concerns ensures that they are not put at increased risk, whether that’s building gender-segregated COVID-19 treatment and isolation facilities, or safe hand-washing facilities that are lit adequately at night. Data gathered must, at a minimum, include information about the sex and age of the people in need of support. Without this detail, humanitarian programs cannot be adequately tailored to meet the need.

Third, we must put women and girls at the heart of the economic recovery measures that will be necessary for every country after these first waves of COVID-19 have passed. Perpetrators get away with GBV because of underlying imbalances of power between men and women; imbalances that are likely to intensify globally as a result of COVID-19.

Note, for example, the reports of women taking on more child care responsibility at the expense of work in the U.K. Ensuring that women are given equal access to financial support packages in the short-term, and to training and jobs in the medium- to long-term, will be essential in helping to readdress these structural inequalities. This is as critical in humanitarian contexts as it is here at home.

Eventually, lockdowns will lift around the world. When they do, we expect a huge spike in reports of abuse from women and girls finally able to escape the home. But for some, it may be too late. As a matter of urgency, we must do everything we can to protect and support women and girls in danger.

About the author

  • Laura Kyrke Smith

    Laura Kyrke Smith is the U.K. executive director of the International Rescue Committee.