Violence against women and girls, already one of the most serious social problems we face, becomes worse in every type of emergency, and the COVID-19 crisis is no different.
The numbers are almost beyond comprehension; even before COVID-19, some 243 million women had been abused by a partner in the previous 12 months.
Not only is that number almost certainly underreported — it’s estimated that less than 40 percent of women report or seek help for assault — it has skyrocketed as the social, mental and economic toll of the months-long lockdown have taken hold.
In France and Cyprus, reported cases have increased by 30 percent since March.
Even in Singapore, a country that got a relatively quick grip on the coronavirus, with fewer than 60,000 cases and 28 deaths, reported violence is up 33 percent.
The upsurge is straining even the best healthcare systems, and domestic violence shelters are reaching capacity. The challenges are compounded by normal resources being diverted to the COVID-19 response. The cost, in money alone, is estimated at US$1.5 trillion — and that figure is rising as the pandemic drags on.
UN Secretary-General António Guterrres has called for a domestic violence “ceasefire” amidst a “horrifying global surge”.
“I appealed for an end to violence everywhere, now. But violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes,” he said.
Yet gender-based violence is not only preventable, it’s possible to create a world free of violence and everybody has a role to play.
The UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, from 25 November to 10 December, will take place under the theme: “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!” It will draw attention to the extent of a too often hidden issue, and suggest ways governments and communities can make effective action a key part of their COVID-19 response plans.
“We have watched in alarm as rates of gender-based violence, which were already too high, have climbed around the world because of the pandemic,” said Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, UNDP Global Gender Champion, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS. “This year’s 16 Days campaign is vital to bringing much needed attention and urgency to this global surge. We have no time to waste — preventing and addressing gender-based violence must be effectively integrated into our COVID-19 efforts.”
UNDP is urging policies that commit to long-term funding to support survivors and police and justice systems. We are working with more than 80 countries to prevent and respond to the rising rates of violence against women and girls. This includes ensuring that survivors’ needs are met and that women participate in the process to build forward better, with their concerns, expertise and opinions incorporated into all levels of the COVID-19 response and recovery.
Malawi’s successful response included initiatives to empower women financially. They distributed cash transfers, fiscal relief, skills training and business stimulus packages.
Lebanon is taking a similar route, integrating GBV prevention within cash-for-work programmes.
In Mexico UNDP, in collaboration with UN Women, is establishing phone and online platforms to support vulnerable women in LUNAS centres, which are safe spaces where women can receive a monthly allowance, and, where appropriate, get away from their aggressor.
In Botswana, wider community efforts are having great success. Tribal chiefs, schoolteachers, farmers and nurses in the country are raising awareness and advising the government on their villages’ challenges and needs.
UNDP and UN Women have launched the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker. It includes more than 2,500 measures in 206 countries that directly address women’s economic and social security, along with measures to address gender-based violence. So far it shows that while many countries are prioritizing women’s needs in their COVID-19 efforts, most are not doing enough and about 20 percent of countries are doing nothing at all.
“We have seen that most countries’ gender-responsive COVID-19 efforts are focused on addressing violence against women and girls. This is a good start, but it’s clearly not enough,” said Raquel Lagunas, UNDP Gender Team Acting Director. “Governments must step up and treat gender-based violence response services as essential services and integrate them into their national recovery plans, scale up comprehensive programmes and policies, and boost women’s active participation and leadership.”
UNDP’s Gender-based violence and COVID-19 brief provides additional action that UN agencies, governments and other partners can take to prevent and address gender violence in the context of COVID-19.