Before COVID-19, 243 million women or 1 in 3 women worldwide suffered Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the past year, and less than forty per cent of them sought help. GBV is a widespread human rights violation that has varied forms, ranging from rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and cyberbullying, to female genital mutilation and child marriage.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an upsurge in all types of violence against women and girls. This is due to exacerbating factors such as security, health and financial concerns, cramped living conditions, sheltering in place with perpetrators, movement restrictions and deserted public places thus making the home an unsafe place for so many women and girls.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched health services, demand for support services for GBV, also known as the “shadow pandemic” reached its peak. Some countries reported as much as a fivefold increase in the need for GBV helpline services in the first few weeks of the lockdown, while, some women in other countries were unable to seek help through regular support channels.
While one can argue that sex-disaggregated data from COVID-19 infections and mortality show that more men than women have contracted and died from the disease, women have borne the brunt of the economic, mental and emotional effects of the pandemic. This is due to the increase in job losses, domestic work and unpaid care caused by the pandemic.
Across the globe, women work mainly in the informal sector where they earn less and hold jobs that lack essential worker protection such as paid leave, notice period or severance pay. According to a UN Women report, 58% of women employed in the informal sector lost an average of 60% of their income in the first month of the pandemic due to the decline in economic activity which left them particularly vulnerable to layoffs and loss of livelihoods. Quarantine measures and school closures also increased the burden of unpaid work and domestic work. Also, for working mothers, this has meant balancing full-time employment with childcare and schooling responsibilities. The responsibility of looking after sick family members often falls disproportionately on women as well.
In addition, the pandemic has widened the gap in access to reliable sources of information for COVID-19, especially for low income and poorly educated women due to poor cell phone ownership and internet access. This gender digital divide undermines the vital role that these women can play in promoting hygiene routines within their households.
Every year since 1991, the United Nations designates 16 days of activism against GBV from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of violence against women till 10 December, the Human Rights Day. During these days, iconic buildings and monuments all over the world are lit in orange to call for a brighter future where women and girls can live free from violence. The global theme for 2020 is “Orange the world: Fund, Prevent, Respond and Collect”. The theme calls for the funding of essential services for GBV in COVID-19 response in all countries, prevention of GBV through mobilisation campaigns, response to survivor needs by providing services like hotlines, shelters and legal aid, as well as the collection of data to improve services, programs and policies.
Everyone has a role to play in helping to eliminate GBV by learning about it, raising awareness, understanding the dynamics of domestic violence, knowing the kind of support that women need when in danger, how to take action when someone is in trouble and how to support women organisations. GBV is a problem with a solution, and with everyone (individuals, communities and societies) playing their roles, we will reset and build a new normal that delivers a future without violence for all women and girls.
Dr Chidumga Ohazurike
Dr. Chidumga Ohazurike is a Public health physician with interests in health policy and systems research.