The effort to prioritize gender-based violence in UN pandemic response

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U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres delivers remarks on the topic of “Women and Power” at the New School in New York. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

GLASGOW, Scotland — The introduction of lockdowns due to the coronavirus around the world was immediately met with concerns that women would experience higher levels of violence during this time and be unable to seek help.

Gender-based violence always increases during emergencies but it can often be a struggle to get resources and action on the ground around the issue, experts say.

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.

This time there has been much more attention paid to it, said Åsa Regnér, deputy executive director at UN Women, with different actors addressing it from the start of the response. In many countries, for example, governments have set up telephone helplines and other mechanisms to ensure people can reach out.

Nicole Behnam, senior director for violence prevention and response at the International Rescue Committee, agreed there has been more talk around these issues but added that “action has not been swift to follow.”

At the United Nations, gender has been mainstreamed within the COVID-19 response, Regnér argued. The organization has been able to build on lessons from previous crises — especially the Ebola and Zika outbreaks — where restrictions on movement led to an increase in violence against women.

“We’re still seeing a disconnect, between rhetoric — what people are calling attention to at the highest levels — and reality — what is being demanded from response plans and therefore happening on the ground.”

— Nicole Behnam, senior director for violence prevention and response, International Rescue Committee

That means the U.N. “can fall back on a lot of knowledge now that wasn’t there only 15 years ago,” Regnér said. “Sometimes we see a lot of actors wanting to do something about the situation [violence against women] ... We have learned throughout the years that it's very important to know what you're doing.”

Messages from leadership — specifically U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres — have also played a critical role, she added.

Guterres has made gender a key theme of his tenure. Just weeks before lockdowns became commonplace around the world, he gave a speech that looked at the U.N.’s work from a feminist perspective, Regnér said. “I think that kind of leadership also really helps to make all parts of the system respond and take this issue as seriously as all other parts of the response,” she explained.

The secretary-general has since urged governments to put women and girls at the center of response efforts and issued a policy brief which includes priority measures around gender for the immediate and longer-term recovery.

Behnam said that commitments from the head of the U.N. and others in positions of leadership are important in helping raise awareness of critical issues that are usually invisible.

"But the truth is that we’re still seeing a disconnect, between rhetoric — what people are calling attention to at the highest levels — and reality — what is being demanded from response plans and therefore happening on the ground,” Behnam said.

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The U.N.’s global humanitarian response plan initially had little mention of child protection and gender-based violence, Behnam explained, although the updated version released on May 7 had more on this. There are, however, still no mechanisms in place to ensure work on gender-based violence is financed and no funding earmarked for child protection, she added.

Behnam called for specific objectives within the COVID-19 response to tackle the “concurrent pandemic” of violence against women and children. There needs to be a demand for disaggregated data collection, and funding for protection issues that can be tracked, she urged. The rhetoric needs to be backed up with accountability.

Gender provisions have been included in the proposed U.N. COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. These relate to violence against women, women’s economic situation, and other key areas to allow them the same chance as men to recover from this crisis, Regnér said. Meanwhile U.N. Security Council briefings have highlighted women’s rights in relation to conflict and the current situation.

“The U.N. has been working pretty systematically with gender equality and women's rights this time,” she said. “That doesn't solve the problem in itself, but it certainly helps when you gear response and interventions [around that].”

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.