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

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A lawyer looks through the door of the headquarters where she and her team receive women at risk and victims of domestic violence, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by: Mahe Elipe / Reuters

GLASGOW, Scotland — Reports of domestic violence have fallen dramatically in fragile and conflict-affected countries since the introduction of lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

According to new data from the International Rescue Committee, reports of abuse have decreased by 50% in Bangladesh and 30% in Tanzania as a result of restrictions on mobility, lack of information, and increased isolation. In Iraq, almost two months passed without a reported case. 

But these statistics don't mean gender-based violence isn’t happening.

Has it become too dangerous to measure violence against women?

Collecting data on gender-based violence is a sensitive endeavor under any circumstance. Devex asks experts what it looks like now — when women may be in lockdown with their abusers.

“We know that crises result in increases in GBV,” said Nicole Behnam, senior director of violence prevention and response at IRC. “These decreases in women seeking services are heartbreaking because they don’t tell us that violence is decreasing, but that at-risk women are losing their final remaining lifelines to services and safety.”

Meanwhile, UNICEF has seen a significant increase in calls to its helplines in some countries, such as Lebanon and Palestine, but a drop in places where technology is limited and women might have restricted access to it, explained Catherine Poulton, UNICEF’s manager for gender-based violence in emergencies.

“Regardless of what the emergency is, whether a natural disaster ... [or] conflict related, we see a rise in GBV,” Poulton said, especially in intimate partner violence, sexual violence and, in some contexts, child marriage.

“In many cases, GBV services are still not seen as essential and lifesaving.”

— Catherine Poulton, gender-based violence in emergencies manager, UNICEF

Why do cases increase during emergencies?

In almost all cases of violence against women and girls, the perpetrators live within the close environment of the victims so they tend to be family members, friends, or neighbors, explained Amalia Alarcón Beckelmann, head of gender-transformative programming for Plan International in the Americas.

“We have seen from previous experience that ... gender-based violence and sexual violence is going to increase under an emergency situation,” she said, but “in this case it’s worse because the girls and women are locked down in their homes with their abusers.” It’s now more difficult, even impossible, for some women to report cases of violence.

The increase in gender-based violence during emergencies can be a result of additional stress, but “it’s [also] because the opportunities for exploitation are exacerbated” by the breakdown of a stable environment and support networks, Behnam said. There can be a rise in transactional sex, for example, because adolescent girls find themselves in a position where it is the only way they can survive.

Poulton added that inequalities that exist prior to emergencies are often made worse. “What we see in emergencies is women and girls having less access to information … [and] becoming more dependent on male family members or male community leaders for access,” she said. As a result, they have reduced knowledge of services and are less represented in decision-making.

How organizations are responding

The fast pace at which a humanitarian response moves means “it can echo the existing inequalities,” Poulton cautioned, adding that there needs to be intentionality in addressing gender-based violence during emergencies.

But experts said that, from the beginning of the COVID-19 response, there had been a higher level of awareness around this issue than usual.

Among other activities, organizations have been supporting telephone hotlines and looking for safe ways to maintain data on GBV throughout the crisis.

While the restrictions have made it hard for safe spaces to remain open, IRC is continuing to run these in some countries with social distancing and infection prevention measures. Elsewhere, though, shelters and safe spaces are being requisitioned to become COVID-19 treatment and testing centers.

“The reason that's happening is partly because, in many cases, GBV services are still not seen as essential and lifesaving,” Poulton said. At the very least, these spaces should be used as women-only treatment centers, she suggested. The situation could make it difficult to turn them back into safe spaces after the pandemic.

Plan is using virtual channels to provide information to girls on the support available to them and on specific topics such as virtual harassment. In working with governments to provide education materials while schools are closed, it is also including information on GBV which will reach both boys and girls. Social media campaigns are being run in all the countries Plan works to raise awareness around GBV and promote co-responsibility and positive masculinity in the home.

Meanwhile, UNICEF is piloting virtual safe spaces for girls in some countries in the Middle East and looking to integrate information on gender-based violence into its apps.

These services do rely on women and girls being able to safely access technology, but in many contexts, this is controlled by male relatives. As a result, organizations are also training frontline and community health workers, and other staff already in the community, on GBV in the hope they can reach at-risk women through these channels.

Health care workers are already overwhelmed, but they are trusted figures in communities and could play a critical role if they know the signs to look for and the questions to ask, said Åsa Regnér, deputy executive director at UN Women. Many of these workers are women themselves and are “carrying societies” through this crisis, she said.

Looking forward, Regnér said, governments and organizations need to prepare for increased demand on GBV services once restrictions are lifted. “We know from experience that women, once they can get out, they seek help and leave violent relationships,” she said.

She urged governments to ensure that women are included in decisions around budget allocations in response and stimulus packages, and that these address the specific challenges women will face, including those leaving violent partners.

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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.