The UN has called for the end to a “pandemic of femicide” and gender-based violence against women and girls. This comes as global rates of gender-based violence have surged during lockdowns.
The “Shadow Pandemic”
Whilst the world has been focused on tackling COVID-19, many issues for women and girls have been side-lined. According to UN data, before the pandemic, one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. One hundred and thirty-seven women are killed by a member of their family every day. Despite calls to helplines having increased five-fold in some countries during lockdown, less than 40% of women who experience violence are able to seek help.
Speaking in front of the International Development Committee on 24 November 2020, Jennifer Miquel, Head of UNFPA’s Regional Syria Response Hub, UNFPA Jordan:
“We’ve estimated that globally there could be 30 million more cases of violence against women and girls because of COVID”
The pandemic has exacerbated the effects of gender-based violence in a variety of ways, from security, money and health concerns, living conditions, spending isolation with abusers, movement restrictions, and deserted public spaces.
COVID-19 has occupied the majority of health resources and strained services, leaving little attention and facilities left for domestic violence shelters, workers and helplines.
In a study by Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, pandemics worsen existing gender inequalities and vulnerabilities by increasing the exposure of children and women to harassment and violence when procuring basic necessities. They are also more vulnerable because of their inability to escape their abuser, which increases instances of rape and sexual assault. Economic dependence is also another factor, as it further increases the difficulty for women to leave the perpetrators of violence if they are reliant on their male counterpart.
Frontiers’ study discussed a point raised by the Indian Express, who noted that the vast majority of people in Mumbai do not have house-land-water connections. With the emphasis on handwashing and sanitation for COVID-19 prevention, and especially during the hot summer months, water is needed more than ever. Many women have been turning to the underground water market operating in the dark. Subsequently, women have spent more time queuing up for water in either darkness or in the early hours of the morning, thus facing more verbal and sexual harassment. Despite this increase in harassment and violence, Delhi-based NGO Jagori reported a 50% drop in helpline calls, possibly because of the fear of getting discovered by their offenders at home. Abusers who are now at home during lockdowns can more easily restrict access to phones and the internet.
In Australia, despite an overall drop in crimes rates during lockdown, the domestic abuse rates increased by 5%. Charities in Australia also highlighted that misinformation on COVID-19 can be used by offenders to further control and abuse victims. China witnessed a three-fold increase in domestic violence after imposing quarantine. Various states in the US have also reported an increase between 21-35% in domestic violence cases.
In the UK, by the end of May there had been a 66% increase in calls to the UK’s national domestic abuse helpline, and a 950% increase in website visits.
There is also the danger of abuse particularly to children due to school closures. SafeLives, a UK domestic abuse charity, states that 22% of services have seen a caseload increase due to COVID-19.
In Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report for 2020, they warn that “25 years of progress is in peril”. COVID-19 is impacting young girls’ lives in so many ways, such as losing access to education, more exposure to violence, and heightened food insecurity. It is estimated that 9.7 million children may never return to school post-COVID, with girls much less likely to return once having been taken out of education. This then increases the likelihood of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, with up to 2.5 million more girls at risk of child marriage in the next five years because of the pandemic. Adolescent pregnancies are expected to rise by up to one million in 2020, with the greatest number concentrated in South Asia, followed by West and Central Africa. This is the first time in 30 years that girls have been more, and not less, at risk of child marriage. Other harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation are expected to increase alongside this, as young girls are much more exposed to domestic family violence and have no escape via school.
Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!
The UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign is a multi-year effort aimed at preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls. The focus is on bridging funding gaps and amplifying global action to ensure essential survivors of violence during the pandemic. This year’s theme for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”, launching 16 days of activism that will conclude on 10 December, International Human Rights Day.
UN human rights expert Dubravka Šimonović has suggested a universal establishment of national initiatives to monitor and prevent such killings. Such bodies should be mandated and collect comparable and disaggregated data on femicide on gender-related killings, recommend measures for prevention, and hold days of remembrance to ensure victims are not forgotten.
The rise in femicides and violence was “taking the lives of women and girls everywhere” around the world, she said.
As of September 2020, 48 countries have integrated prevention and response measures to violence against women in their national COVID-19 plans, and 121 countries have adopted measures to strengthen services for survivors of violence during the crisis.
In October at the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also called for affirmative action to prevent femicide. He said data collected by observatories should be comparable from country to country and disaggregated “under categories of intimate partner and family related femicides, based on age, disability, gender identity, migrant status, internal displacement, racial or ethnic origin and belonging to indigenous communities or to a religious or linguistic minority”.
Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report pushes the same suggestions. They echo the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire on domestic violence, and to continue to “implement transformative programming to address the root causes of gender-based violence”. “Count every girl” and “raise girls’ voices” are two key measures that governments should take in order to collect data effectively and include women and girls at the centre of the decision-making process.
Ending discrimination against women and girls is a basic human right, as recognised under the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women issued by the UN General Assembly in 1993 and is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, whilst immediate action needs to be taken to recognise and prevent further increase of harm to women and girls, long term investments should be made to continue progress.