TW/CW: gender-based violence; domestic violence

As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to expand throughout the world, the gendered nature of the crisis has become increasingly clear. Since the onset of the pandemic in early March 2020, women have become disproportionately disadvantaged by threats of violence. After almost one year, the rates of reported Gender Based-Violence (GBV) incidences have continued to grow on an international level.

At the risk of leaving gender-oriented policies as an afterthought, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres urged the global community to prioritize the safety of women and girls in all response efforts. Specifically, Guterres and the wider UN community are calling for a full stop to GBV worldwide.

This is an idealistic request, considering that rates of GBV have always been high. An examination of GBV before the pandemic revealed that 18 percent of women had experienced domestic or intimate-partner abuse at some point in 2019.

Magnified by economic and social stressors, coupled with reduced freedom of movement from social restrictions, rising substance abuse among men, and limited social resources dedicated to female safety, security for women has been severely compromised by the pandemic. Reports of domestic violence have increased dramatically, with some countries exhibiting increased rates of up to 40 percent. In the first week of the pandemic which was characterized by global panic and hysteria, others, like the United Kingdom, reported an increase in GBV-related calls to crisis hotlines by 700 percent. Further challenges like state-actioned violence against curfew or isolation violations have posed an immense threat to the lives of women, especially those living in volatile states.

These are only the reported cases. Pre-pandemic, less than 40 percent of women who experienced GBV sought any help, while only 10 percent of women chose to report to the police. With increased isolation measures and reduced funding for social services like shelters, some women may be too close to their perpetrators to safely report the violence they experience. For vulnerable groups, including refugees and displaced persons, the willingness to report is even less, despite high rates of GBV both before and during COVID-19.

The pandemic, already posing a great threat to women’s health, has exasperated gendered insecurity. As a response, Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has encouraged the global community to “think differently and rebuild better” in efforts to squash gendered-violence.

However, the global community should have started thinking differently and rebuilding better a long time ago.

GBV has been present in the lives of women for far too long. Statistics show that approximately 35 percent of women worldwide are likely to experience domestic abuse or sexual violence at some point in their life. Despite this, funding towards programs is minimal across the international policy sphere.

GBV has been present in the lives of women for far too long. Statistics show that approximately 35 percent of women worldwide are likely to experience domestic abuse or sexual violence at some point in their life. Despite this, funding towards programs is minimal across the international policy sphere.

Further, the current rise in GBV is no surprise. When examining the relationship between gendered-violence and past health crises, the rate of GBV in COVID-times follows a prominent trend. During the Ebola crisis of 2016, GBV and sexual exploitation skyrocketed in West Africa. Social isolation, school closures, and lack of police enforcement all contributed to rising rates of GBV, which were heightened by a lack of acknowledgement from local governments, and therefore a lack of transparent reporting. Additionally, the Zika virus outbreak of 2015 in Latin America saw a mass restriction on female sexual autonomy, especially for women within the lowest socio-economic brackets. In both examples, gendered violence was swept under the rug.

Where was the call for global efforts during the crises of Ebola or Zika? And more broadly, where was the call for global efforts to help female victims of abuse before the pandemic started? There seems to be no institutional body holding governments accountable for the action against GBV. Instead, there is the risk that countries could be creating an image of accountability without any legitimate action required for women.

Of course, domestic response to GBV differs among countries, some better than others. Canada, for one, has done a commendable job so far. But on a global level, there has been limited tangible action. The Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP), which promised to use international funding to support GBV-reduction initiatives in 63 countries, has been inadequate. At the beginning of the pandemic, the GHRP appealed for donor funding of $9.3 billion. According to an updated progress report published in February 2021, the funding only ever reached $3.73 billion. It is acknowledged by the UN that the additional funds could have been used to address gaps in GBV-support programming in vulnerable communities across the world. As rates of GBV continue to rise, this plan is too slow.

This sentiment can also be found in a recent report published by UN Women. While the report encouraged governments to increase funding, support health, social resources, and maintain open and resourced survivor services, the policy plan is underdeveloped and insufficient. The report is also limited in scope and neglects to offer any legitimate means of implementing policy programs besides generic feminist rhetoric.

Further, there is inadequate mention of specific programs for targeting at-risk countries with high rates of GBV, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. The governments of Southern Africa have been ineffective in decreasing GBV and the recommendations that the UN has offered are a Western, one-size-fits-all approach with little room for diverse cultural or social practices. There are limited suggestions for how the governments should go about targeting at-risk women within their countries, or how local governments can strengthen the weaknesses that let GBV survivors fall through the cracks of justice. With no legitimate policy plans, there are no systems of accountability in place to ensure that countries are using their resources to reduce violence and make meaningful changes to the cultural confines of womanhood.

While the UN is limited in its ability to enforce domestic government policies within its member states, they need to step up to further initiate and maintain meaningful policy action on a global level. Moving forward, policy plans should not only strive to reduce the amount of GBV worldwide; they also need to clean up the wide-spread gender-equalities that facilitated the rise in the first place.

The UN boasts that “a global approach is the only way to fight COVID-19”. The same is true for fighting GBV.

COVID-19 is a painful reminder of how far the global goal of female empowerment and security still is. Now is the time to lay the policy groundwork to ensure women are protected now and after the pandemic ends.

Brynn Millar is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Brynn is specializing in international development policy with a research focus on women’s security in developing regions. 

Banner image by Rad Pozniakov, courtesy of Unsplash.

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