27 November 2020
Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a widespread problem that occurs at alarming rates, with 1 in 3 women worldwide having experienced physical or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner or non-partner at some point in their lifetime1. Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified VAWG, particularly in, but not limited to, the domestic sphere. It is for this reason that we at UN-Women refer to VAWG as the “shadow pandemic”. While the world’s attention is focused on containing COVID-19, this other scourge is growing, exacerbated by the very measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns, social distancing and other forms of restrictions on movement.
While lockdowns and stay-at-home orders may be crucial in limiting and preventing the spread of COVID-19, they also have a devastating impact on women and girls living with the risk of gender-based violence (GBV), as many of the factors that trigger or perpetuate violence against women and girls are compounded by preventive confinement measures. Emerging global data has shown an increase in calls to VAWG helplines, including in the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region. For instance, in Argentina, between 20 and 31 March 2020, the number of daily calls to the 144 Helpline for Gender-Based Violence increased by 39 per cent.2 In Mexico, emergency calls related to VAWG increased by 53 per cent in the first four months of 2020.3 During March and April 2020, the National Network of Refuges reported a 77 per cent increase in the number of women using their services compared to the same period in 2019.4
Stay-at-home measures are compounding perpetrators’ use of mechanisms of power and control to isolate victims of VAWG. Unemployment, economic instability and stress may lead offenders to feel a loss of that power, which in turn may exacerbate the frequency and severity of their abusive behaviour. At the same time, the crisis is generating additional barriers for women and girls’ access to essential life-saving services such as counselling and justice resources, and legal advice; sexual health and other crucial medical assistance; and the provision of refuge. In this context, as victim-survivors are further isolated from assistance and social support networks, the negative health and well-being impacts worsen, and the risks of more lethal and extreme violence increase. As the world is distracted by the pandemic, many perpetrators take on an ever-greater sense of impunity, assuming that they have the freedom to act without restriction.
Women who face greater vulnerability to multiple forms of discrimination, including those who are older women, those living with disabilities, LGBTQI and trans women, migrants, displaced and refugee women, victims of armed conflict, indigenous women, those of African descent and rural women, and those living in informal settlements, suffer even higher risks and additional obstacles in accessing essential services.
From the start of the pandemic, UN-Women has urged the international community, individual governments, the private sector and civil society to prioritize the prevention of VAWG; declare VAWG services as essential; adapt those services to remote modalities; and step up efforts to raise awareness, promoting zero tolerance for VAWG. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has demonstrated tremendous leadership in urging States to make the prevention of VAWG a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19. He has launched a gender-based violence political engagement strategy (“Fund, Prevent, Respond, Collect”) to urge States to prioritize funding for essential services and to increase flexible funding for women’s organizations; prevent VAWG through national zero tolerance policies and social mobilization campaigns; adapt services to the COVID-19 context; and collect data for the improvement of GBV services and programmes. This strategy is a joint platform for the entire United Nations system.
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated much-needed momentum around this issue but more needs to be done. VAWG was a pandemic long before the outbreak of COVID-19. The underlying causes are not the virus itself or the resulting economic crisis, but rather an imbalance of power and control. This imbalance stems from inequality between men and women, discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, gender stereotypes, social norms that tolerate and perpetuate violence and abuse, and societal structures that replicate inequality and discrimination. If we want to eradicate VAWG, we need to develop longer-term strategic approaches that tackle these underlying causes.
The global cost of violence against women is estimated at approximately $1.5 trillion;5 in the LAC region, the cost amounts to between 1.6 and 2 per cent of gross domestic product.6 That figure will only rise as violence increases in the aftermath of the pandemic. We need to invest in prevention to stop violence from occurring in the first place. This means investing in whole-school approaches to VAWG, community mobilization, working with men and boys on transforming harmful masculinities, and promoting more healthy and equal relationships. We must also address the impact of VAWG on children and young people, ensuring that women and girls can access long-term specialist support services and empowerment programmes, and putting an end to impunity of perpetrators. We need to invest in innovative approaches that utilize new technologies and behavioural science to promote behavioural change. Finally, we must recognize the important role that women human rights defenders and feminist movements have played and continue to play in preventing VAWG, and increase their funding. This has proven to be the single most effective measure in preventing VAWG. UN-Women, is working with UNDP, UNFPA and other agencies of the United Nations system on many of these strategies, including the Spotlight Initiative, the largest global effort launched to prevent VAWG, with an unprecedented investment of 500 million euros on behalf of the European Union.
Violence against women and girls is not an inevitable part of our cultures. It can and must be prevented. A lot of progress has been made in the past decades, but we still have a long way to go to reach the ambitious goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
2 Argentina, Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, Statistical information, “Number of communications for gender violence received” (September 2020). Available at https://www.argentina.gob.ar/generos/linea-144/informacion-estadistica.
3 México. Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres, Violencia contra las mujeres. Indicadores básicos en tiempos de pandemia (2020), p. 8. Available at https://www.gob.mx/cms/uploads/attachment/file/558770/vcm-indicadores911.pdf.
4 EQUIS, Justicia para las mujeres, INTERSECTA y Red Nacional de Refugios, “Las dos pandemias. Violencia contra las mujeres en México en el contexto de COVID-19. Informe elaborado para la Relatora Especial de Naciones Unidas sobre la violencia contra la mujer, sus causas y consecuencias” (2020). Available at: https://equis.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/informe-dospandemiasmexico.pdf.
5 UN-Women, “COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls” (2020). (2020) Available at https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006.
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