Solving the Shadow Pandemic: 5 actions needed now to end gender-based violence

by 25th Nov 2020
Solving the Shadow Pandemic: 5 actions needed now to end gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls or gender-based violence (GBV), whether it takes place in the home, in the workplace, in public spaces, schools or communities is one of the most widespread human rights abuses around the world. On average, 1 in 3 women globally experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, usually from an intimate partner. In addition to devastating impacts on the dignity, security and wellbeing of survivors, violence against women also has broad social and economic costs across societies, including costs on public services, lost income and productivity.

As a longstanding concern that is rooted in gender inequality and which no society or community is immune to, violence against women in all its forms increases during crises and the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The social and economic strains of the pandemic, compounded by movement restrictions, have led to a surge in reports of domestic violence, in country after country. With households losing income and schools remaining closed in many contexts, girls are at particular risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, teenage pregnancy, early and forced marriage and other harmful practices.

According to UN projections, every three months that lockdown measures continue, an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence could be expected globally. In countries such as Argentina, Cyprus and Singapore emergency calls for domestic violence cases increased by 25-30 per cent during the first wave of lockdowns, while in South Africa, more than 2,000 complaints of GBV were made to the South African Police Service in the first seven days of that country’s lockdown.

In my home, Ecuador, GBV hotlines actually saw a decrease in calls at the start of the pandemic because many women were trapped in small one-room homes with their aggressors, and did not feel safe to call. Our partner organisation Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos developed a simple but effective mobile phone emoji system to help counter this, so that women could reach out with coded emojis when they felt in danger.

Today marks the start of the global 16 Days of Activism campaign with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the extent of the problem, it also offers a critical opportunity for civil society, governments and businesses to ‘build forward’ and take stronger action to address what is increasingly referred to as a ‘shadow pandemic’.

We surveyed colleagues and gender experts from 50 countries in the CARE network to offer concrete solutions. This is what they said were the main priorities for action.

1. Ensure survivors and those at risk of violence have access to comprehensive support

This includes quality health services, psychosocial support, justice and legal services, shelters and safe spaces and economic assistance. These essential services must be included in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans, resourced adequately and made accessible in the context of social distancing measures, for example by creating remote ways to access support. In countries such as Haiti, Nigeria, Jordan and Laos, CARE is supporting access to GBV services in various ways including setting up hotlines for survivors to access remote counselling and referrals. We are also supporting local partners and governments to raise awareness of GBV and reach those at risk.

2. Promote the economic, social and political empowerment of women and girls

This includes supporting economic empowerment and livelihoods programmes, social protection and safety nets that support women and girls and access to safe and equitable education for girls and boys. This importantly also includes promoting the leadership and meaningful participation of women and girls at all levels of decision-making, where they today remain conspicuously absent; including in COVID-19 response teams globally as we revealed in our recent report: Where are the Women?

3. Support and expand policies, programmes and strategies that promote gender equality in social norms, attitudes and behaviours and that address the root causes of violence

It is critical to engage men, boys, community leaders and other community members in challenging and transforming patriarchal norms, practices and beliefs that justify violence against women. An example of how this can work is the Indashyikirwa programme implemented by CARE and partners in Rwanda, which reduced rates of intimate partner violence by 55% amongst women, through a combination of a village savings and loan associations (VSLA) approach combined with couples’ workshops designed to address harmful norms and household power inequalities.

4. Increase funding, support and space for organisations that promote women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality

Particularly local women-led and women’s rights organisations that are on the frontlines of action on GBV as well as youth-led and LGBTQI+ rights organisations.

5. Ensure public planning and budgeting processes and public financial systems integrate gender equality principles

They should also integrate gender analysis, and make sure adequate public resources are allocated for GBV prevention, risk mitigation, and response.

Countries must now ratify ILO Convention 190

Fortunately, there is now an international instrument available that can help advance many of these priorities. Last year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted a new global convention that addresses violence and harassment in the world of work, including GBV. Convention 190 applies to both formal and informal workers, protects workers wherever they find themselves in the course of doing their jobs, and covers online abuse and domestic violence in its scope.

So far only two countries – Uruguay and Fiji – have formally ratified it. All governments have an opportunity to take action on GBV by ratifying and implementing the convention. The ‘shadow pandemic’ has made it clearer how much this international legislation is needed.

We must support women, girls and their organisations

There is no vaccine that will end GBV. What is needed instead is profound structural and social change at all levels of society, led by governments, businesses, public and private institutions, civil society and ordinary people. We must support women, girls and organisations that are leading efforts to support survivors, challenge patriarchal practices, and advance gender equality. CARE is contributing to this effort globally, including through partnerships with women’s rights groups in 39 countries and supporting 2.3 million people in 64 countries to access information and services for GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, systems across the world have been tested, and when it comes to gender-based violence, they have been found severely wanting. As we face a future with greater economic and social challenges, we must make every effort to guarantee a life free from violence for women and girls everywhere.

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Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro

Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro was appointed Secretary General of CARE International in June 2020. Previously she was CARE’s Programme Director, responsible for leading the organisation’s program strategy and its implementation worldwide, with the aim of making a significant contribution to fighting poverty and inequality and attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Impact measurement and evidence was a critical part of her role.

Sofia joined CARE in 1994 and is passionate about addressing gender inequality, having worked in solidarity alongside some of the most discriminated-against women to support their struggles, such as domestic workers, women working in the garment sector and survivors of gender-based violence. She is a sociologist and is from Uruguay.

Twitter: @SofiaSprechmann