Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global pandemic that already affects 35% of women at some point in their lifetime. Evidence shows that women, girls and other vulnerable groups are at increased risk of GBV during public health crises, including sexual violence, abuse and exploitation.
Reports already suggest three-fold increases in GBV in the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, which may have different causes, such as increased household economic stress, or lack of access to support during social distancing and lockdowns.
Experts say that it would be useful to draw on the lessons from other crises, like Ebola. They also note, however, that the unique nature of Covid-19 and the unprecedented physical distancing it requires raises concerns about GBV that we have not seen in any previous crisis. As a result, we know little about the best ways to tackle it during this pandemic.
Experience suggests that integrating violence protection services into the responses from other sectors (such as health, education and justice) is critical, alongside the provision of targeted services such as shelters.
But we are also seeing promising innovations taking place as women struggle to get help as a result of social distancing instructions. Some of these measures are:
- hotline numbers in India;
- teleconferencing services for online therapy in New York City;
- secured apps to avoid calling in the proximity of abusers in the UK and Italy (in Italian);
- a secret code (in Spanish) in Spain so women can seek help in pharmacies;
- contact points to welcome victims of domestic violence in shopping centres (in French) in France;
- campaigns targeting males in Argentina, where provincial governments and civil society have gone further. Men can call or WhatsApp if they need support to manage anger and prevent violence (in Spanish).
Although all these measures are important, the need to re-shape gender norms is more urgent than ever. While every country is likely to see a surge in domestic violence, those societies with more equitable gender norms may fare better.
We need far greater investment in work to change norms to address violence, including in low-resource and humanitarian settings. This work also needs to be scaled up to support more resilient societies during times of crisis and efforts to address the roots of violence, rather than just the symptoms.