Long before Covid-19, women, girls, trans and non-binary people were already facing an equally devastating but largely ignored pandemic. Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the world’s most widespread violations of human rights and a lethal global health crisis. 1 in 3 women - around 736 million - will experience physical or sexual violence across their lifetime.
Coronavirus has devastated efforts to prevent and respond to this crisis and catalyzed an explosion in the global case numbers. Yet, only a handful of governments have acted with sufficient seriousness to tackle the GBV pandemic.
This year, the world celebrates the 30th anniversary of the 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence campaign, an opportunity to celebrate progress that has been made, and call on governments and international institutions to renew their efforts.
An overwhelming surge of violence
Women (including trans women), girls and LGBTQIA+ people faced an overwhelming surge of violence from the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In many households, coronavirus created a ‘perfect storm’ of social and personal anxiety, stress, economic pressure, social isolation (including isolation with abusive family members or partners), and rising alcohol and substance use, resulting in increases in domestic abuse. In one year, intimate partner violence was higher than cases of Covid-19 in the past 12 months.
Findings from 10 countries show an increase between 25-111% in calls to domestic violence or gender-based violence helplines during the first months of the pandemic.
According to the National Commission for Women, domestic violence increased by 250% in India’s first wave of lockdowns, leaving services struggling to meet demand.
An International Rescue Committee survey in 15 countries found that 73% of refugee and displaced women reported increased domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic.
While governments encouraged citizens to stay ‘safe’ at home, they neglected to consider what that might mean for women and girls confined with their aggressors. The pandemic exposed what has long been an open secret – that home is not a safe place for women.
Services became harder to reach as many people assumed they were closed, stayed away due to fear of infection, or were unable to reach out for help due to their abusers being at home all day, monitoring their phone and internet use.
“The pandemic has worsened long-standing gender discriminations. This has increased the vulnerability of women, girls and LGBTQIA+ people to violence and abuse.”
Outside of their homes, women were regularly forced to disobey curfews, lockdowns or stay-at-home orders due to their need to earn a living, to find food and water for their households, or to perform the care work society disproportionately expects of them and which also increased during the pandemic. With little choice but to continue working, they faced harassment and brutalization by police and military authorities enforcing coronavirus control measures.
245 million women and girls were subjected to violence by an intimate partner in 2018, exceeding the number of Covid-19 cases within one year by more than 46 million.
The global cost of violence against women and girls is estimated at approximately 2 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), or US$1.5 trillion.
Of the $26.7 trillion that governments and donors mobilized to respond to the pandemic in 2020, just 0.0002% has gone into combating GBV.
These impacts are likely to be felt far into the future, for example through reduced lifetime earnings, lost contributions to pensions and reduced access to education. Adolescent girls, in particular, have faced a range of issues that are likely to increase their risk of facing GBV across their lifetimes, including being pulled out of school, being refused access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, and being forced to marry early, which are all risk factors for later GBV.
Is ending gender-based violence possible?
Ending GBV is possible, and analysis in 70 countries over 40 years has found that the most vital and consistent factor driving policy change has been feminist activism. Feminist movements and organizations have changed the way we think about GBV, drawing attention to the issue and stirring global sentiment, for example through the global outpouring of outrage, grief and solidarity connected to the #MeToo, #NiUnaMenos, #SayHerName and #BalanceTonPorc uprisings, while also deepening our understanding of its root causes and the interventions that are most effective in addressing it.
Within the Syrian refugee community in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, a group of refugee women are fighting against gender-based violence and empowering other women in their communities to do the same. They are equipped with skills that allow them to refer cases to women rights organizations and appropriate authorities, to listen, and provide a safe space for women seeking refuge. The group was established and supported by Oxfam and partners in Tripoli. Photo: Natheer Halawani
The 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence
Launched in 1991 by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), the 16 days run annually from 25 November, the anniversary of the deaths of activists Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal in the Dominican Republic, to 10 December, International Human Rights Day. To date, more than 6,000 organizations in around 187 countries have participated in the Global 16 Days Campaign, raising awareness, building solidarity and calling for recognition of GBV as a violation of human rights.
Since 1991, enormous progress has been made, both in advancing the world’s understanding of GBV and its causes, and in adapting the legislative and policy frameworks that govern responses to it.
Here are some key milestones from 30 years of activism to end GBV:
United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women
Creation of office of UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women
Inter-American Convention on the prevention, punishment and eradiction of violence against women (Convention of Belém de Parà)
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)
UN Security Council Resolution 1820 recognises sexual violence as a weapon and tactic of war
Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence
UN Sustainable Development Goals containing a goal to end violence against women and girls
International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on violence and harassment at work
We can’t afford to wait for another 30 years to stop losing lives
The anniversary of the 16 Days of activism provides an important opportunity for governments and international actors to take stock of progress and live up to their commitments, ensuring that their efforts centre survivors and frontline responders, and address patriarchy and the root causes of GBV. Their efforts should include action to:
Women’s organizations and movements have demonstrated that GBV is preventable and that, given the chance, they are best placed to turn the tide against it. Despite this, in 2018–19, they received just 1% of bilateral aid allocated to gender equality, in itself a fraction of overall aid.
Piecemeal, fragmented efforts to address GBV and inequalities will fail to achieve transformative results. Coordinated, comprehensive and cross-sectoral responses are required, to ensure that survivors are able to access effective and quality services.
How countries structure their economic response and recovery in the face of Covid-19 will either increase or reduce inequality and resilience to GBV. All forms of work done by women should be recognized and appropriately rewarded, in particular the low-paid and unpaid care work they disproportionately shoulder responsibility for, such as caring for children and sick and elderly people.
Governments and institutions count what they deem important, and gender data collection has not been prioritised. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of quality data, disaggregated by gender, race, age and other relevant characteristics, has hindered efforts to respond to the needs of those hardest hit by the compounding crises.