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The shadow pandemic: combatting violence against women and girls in the COVID-19 crisis

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Experts and advocacy groups are reporting that incidences of domestic abuse have intensified under COVID-19, triggered by the social and economic impact of the public health emergency.


The call for help to the Center of Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina came two hours after the start of the evening curfew set by the government to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A divorced woman who had gone to a cottage with her ex-husband had fled with her two sons after the man started a fight and became violent. Police told her they could not bring him in or protect her because the couple was no longer married.

Meliha Sendic, president of the Center of Women’s Rights, which is supported by Canada through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, says it was a typical response by authorities currently focused on enforcing measures related to the coronavirus crisis, such as monitoring violations of the curfew.

“Social protection remains in the shadow of health protection,” comments Sendic, whose organization arranged for the victim to see a therapist and retain a lawyer. “If we didn’t intervene, provide the woman with guidance and mediate before various institutions, this could have ended in a fatal outcome.” Before the pandemic began, 48% of women who turned to the organization experienced psychological violence, and 11% experienced physical violence, she adds. “Now the levels of physical and psychological violence are even.”

Experts and advocacy groups like Sendic’s are reporting that incidences of domestic abuse have intensified under COVID-19, triggered by the social and economic impact of the public health emergency. In the developing world especially, the pandemic and measures to mitigate it have vastly raised levels of sexual and gender-based violence, including the exploitation and abuse of children, as well as violence against marginalized communities, such as women who are rural, migrant and living with disabilities. Social restrictions leave many isolated in homes with heightened tensions, without income from informal jobs, overburdened as caregivers and lacking the support and protection of schools and community centres.

Meanwhile, agencies that assist survivors of violence and that work to change cultural norms have had to close or curtail their operations, often because they’re not seen by authorities as essential. With health and social services overwhelmed and courts closed in many places, those that remain open have stepped in as first-responders in cases of intimate-partner violence, for example, and they are assisting authorities to support victims of abuse.

A complex picture

“Reported incidences of violence against women and girls by civil society organizations have absolutely skyrocketed,” says Gemma Wood, manager of monitoring, evaluation and knowledge for the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women.

Referring to it as a “shadow pandemic”, the organization, which supports 150 civil society organizations in 71 countries and territories, says that gender-based violence “surged alarmingly” as a result of lockdown measures to contain the virus. It recently declared that continued restrictions are “still driving increased violence against women and girls,” highlighting an urgent need to support the work of women’s rights organizations and recognize their place in COVID 19 response and reopening plans.

Four women wearing protective masks meet outside to discuss the needs of women and children in Ethiopia.
Karin Heissler, chief of child protection for UNICEF Ethiopia, UNICEF representative Adele Khodr (left to right, background) and H.E. Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, the Minister of Women, Children and Youth of Ethiopia (right, foreground) visit a quarantine centre for returnees. They are speaking with social worker Tirusew Getachew (left, foreground) about the needs of the women and children there. Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia

In the early days of the pandemic, these organizations focused on the health impacts of the virus, requiring resources for personal protective equipment as well as extra food and cash just to keep running, says Wood. “Today the picture is more complex,” she adds, with the need for groups to develop new tools and conduct their programming in different ways, for example, by training local volunteers to assist women survivors of violence.

On a larger level, the pandemic is bringing attention to the issue of gender-based violence in many countries. Wood notes that this problem is neither new—nor entirely unexpected. Gender-based violence surges in such situations because “the risk factors are exacerbated,” and this unprecedented crisis brings unprecedented challenges.

Karin Heissler, a Canadian who is chief of child protection for UNICEF Ethiopia and worked in Liberia during the Ebola response, explains that while authorities focus on stopping the disease from infecting the population, their strategies and actions have broad—and often unintended—consequences.

“Yes, it is a health emergency, but the secondary impacts are massive on education and child protection,” comments Heissler, who oversees organizations working on issues related to violence, exploitation and harmful practices, including female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Working in new ways

Research by GAGE, an organization that studies gender and adolescence in the country, found that with Ethiopian schools closed as a result of COVID-19, young girls are more likely to be forced by their families into marriage.

Heissler explains: “Brothers who previously felt their sisters should be educated now comment, ‘if she’s not learning, it’s better that she gets married’. Parents feel, ‘if girls are at home, they may start hanging around with boys,’ and the parents don’t want that to happen.”

Adolescents would normally find support from peers and teachers at school, as well as in after-class “gender clubs” where they participate in life-skills activities and learn the benefits of delaying marriage, for example. There are new ways of disseminating such messages in the community, Heissler says, such as roving vans equipped with megaphones that blare, “Don’t get your daughter married!” and explain where to go for support. Similar messages are relayed in house-to-house visits that follow social-distancing protocols by members of women’s groups, religious leaders and community volunteers.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women, Children and Youth has recognized that social workers “are as important as doctors and nurses” and have a place on emergency-response front lines, now and in the future, Heissler adds. “There will be other types of emergencies, including public health crises, so if we can be open to working in different ways and learn from other contexts, that means we can build back better.”

Muhammad Rafiq Khan, chief of child protection for UNICEF Ghana, says that a rapid assessment of young people conducted by the organization in June 2020 showed that violence and abuse in home settings, including domestic violence, had increased by more than 30% compared with February 2020 levels.

UNICEF Ghana is studying the effectiveness of alternative methods of providing services during the pandemic, for example, through radio and television. “It’s important to gauge what is happening so we can modify our program accordingly,” Khan says, noting, however, that getting people together is the most effective way to bring change in social norms, “because they are grounded in social pressures.” Khan expects the organization and others to study whether the pandemic ultimately increases the number of young girls who marry and become pregnant in this period.

A woman wearing a mask and a UNICEF jacket hands a dignity kit to a young woman.
Margaret Gwada, CFO at the Tamale office of UNICEF (right) presents a dignity kit to a woman in Nayoko in the North East Region in Ghana. Photo: UNICEF Ghana

Vera Awuye, a program officer at International Needs Ghana, a development organization in the country that UNICEF supports, says that “transactional sex”, where adolescent girls engage in intercourse in exchange for basic items like sanitary pads, food and clothing, is on the rise there as a result of the pandemic. This is because many parents can’t afford to provide girls with such necessities, she says.

On World Menstrual Hygiene Day in May, Awuye’s group gave out “dignity kits” to more than 5,000 girls that included a three-month supply of feminine products. According to Awuye, the initiative—supported by Canada through the Global Programme to End Child Marriage, which is run by UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund—was also a chance to pass along lessons in personal hygiene and encourage recipients “to make informed decisions about their lives”. Such information is best relayed in peer groups, Awuye says, but her organization has instead “resorted to radio programs and community public address systems to reach these girls”.

Breaking barriers

Four women wearing protective masks stand by a poster. The text of the poster is in Spanish, and the Canada wordmark is visible.
Seeds and other agricultural products are distributed to rural women by the Centro de Derechos de Mujeres [Centre of Women’s Rights] in Honduras. The initiative is part of a project focused on enhancing women’s leadership in the country that is supported by Global Affairs Canada through Oxfam Québec. Photo: Centro de Derechos de Mujeres

In Honduras, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), through Oxfam Québec, supports women’s organizations that are raising awareness of the heightened risk of gender-based violence related to the pandemic. One of the groups, Asociación Calidad de Vida (Quality of Life Association), has faced pandemic challenges from setting up quarantine space to obtaining PPE for its shelters, explains Ana Cruz, the group’s director, who is based in the capital of Tegucigalpa.

The group is developing an awareness campaign called “Woman You Are Not Alone” that is designed “to change the predominant patriarchal culture and encourage women victims of gender-based violence to seek help,” Cruz says. This includes telephone counselling to give legal and psychological care, as well as forums and events where survivors of violence share their testimonies and Honduran celebrities speak out in support of abuse survivors.

“Women victims of gender-based violence are breaking barriers to ask for help,” says Cecilia Sanchez, a gender-equality specialist with GAC who is a senior development officer in Honduras. She notes that it’s especially new—and encouraging—that the media is reporting on the issue. According to the National Institute of Women, about two thirds of the complaints of domestic violence and intra-family and sexual violence in the country in the first six months of this year came during the three months of confinement and curfew related to the coronavirus.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, organizations defending women’s rights are advocating that women’s needs have to be included in the response to the crisis,” Sanchez says. GAC has adapted its support for projects in Honduras to focus on those serving the most vulnerable during the crisis, particularly women and girls, she notes.

Survivors of gender-based violence themselves are stepping up to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a group of victims of domestic abuse living in a shelter in Sombor, Serbia, are making fabric masks for health-care providers, taxi drivers, cleaners and other essential workers on the front lines of the public health emergency.

“It's a wonderful feeling to be able to provide a little help in this situation. And my heart feels full knowing that this can protect or even save someone's life,” says one shelter resident, adding that by sewing the face masks, the women feel empowered and valued. “It feels great to give something back.”

Small grass-roots women’s organizations are combining their resources and voices. Marija Petronijević, program coordinator of Association Fenomena, a Serbian women’s group supported by Canada through the UN Trust Fund, says that such organizations “lack capacity to adequately respond to emergency crises,” with little technical knowledge and equipment, few emergency-related working protocols, “as well as a lack of staff and funding.”

Association Fenomena has created an emergency ad-hoc coalition of similar groups in the country. It also operates a 24/7 SOS hotline and runs awareness campaigns through women’s networks and the local media stressing the need to report violence. It has additionally developed partnerships with pharmacists to help abuse survivors get to support services, which, according to Petronijević, “is useful during the health crisis as well as post-crisis”.

Thinking beyond the pandemic

While they are doing their best to address the current crisis, women’s organizations worry that it has made them lose valuable ground in the fight against gender-based violence. Meliha Sendic of the Center of Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina notes that courts there are barely working and social agencies have been redirected to deliver aid. “Women—including new mothers, single mothers, the disadvantaged, elderly and disabled—remain the most marginalized, without any social benefits,” Sendic says.

The group pressured the government for a free phone line for legal aid and psychological support for victims of violence, and it provides online legal support for women and children. Meanwhile, government funds earmarked for groups like hers that educate social-protection professionals, which she calls “the weakest link in the protection chain,” are being redirected to sectors such as health care, she says. “COVID-19 will pass, but will anything change in the protection system?”

Thinking beyond the pandemic is critical to make lasting advances for women and girls, says Kathleen Flynn-Dapaah, director of education, gender-based violence and child protection at GAC. She comments that the pandemic has “amplified” gender-based violence and gender-equality issues that existed previously.

“It hasn’t necessarily made these things grow; it’s a great revealer of what was already there,” Flynn-Dapaah explains. “Going into this, a little over one third of women globally had experienced inter-personal or sexual violence, and one billion children every year experience at least one form of violence.”

One thing that’s changed is that those women and girls who were previously at risk of violence “are now actually experiencing it,” she adds, with families in crisis as a result of isolation, poverty and insecurity. The situation is made worse with the closure of schools, “which are such a huge protective factor for girls.”

No country is immune from these problems now, including Canada, according to Flynn-Dapaah. But when the COVID-19 lockdowns came, she points out, the Canadian government developed strategies that included declaring the gender-based violence and child-protection workforce as essential, and it gave funds to women’s organizations to help. Meanwhile, countries including Canada “have a lot to learn from one another to solve what is a global problem,” Flynn-Dapaah says. Social services that address gender-based violence have creatively pivoted to online systems, help desks and telephone hotlines, she says. They are trying to raise awareness and shift attitudes regarding gender equality, LGBTQ2 rights and child marriage.

Flynn-Dapaah believes it’s critical to shift the focus to prevention and to “double down on the deep-rooted causes of gender inequality, which are worsening under COVID.”

A reopening that’s “gender-inclusive”

The reopening must be “gender-inclusive”, with women part of its planning, she stresses. “It comes down to seizing the opportunity to bring the voices of women from the Global South and the North to the table. We have the power to do that.” Canada, with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, is among the countries leading the effort, according to Flynn-Dapaah. She’s optimistic that women’s organizations worldwide, with their “enormous innovation and resilience and power,” can move the needle on gender equality issues in the months ahead.

Gemma Wood of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women points out that concrete measures and tools are being developed to address the issue of what happens now. Webinars and online events allow women from developed and developing countries to share their stories, struggles and strategies, from social mobilization programs to public awareness campaigns intended to change behaviour.

“We’re listening and learning,” says Wood, noting that the unique challenges of women’s organizations everywhere in the world offer valuable lessons. “We’re hoping to gather their collective solutions to end gender-based violence for the next crisis—and beyond.”

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