Preventing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (SGBV) before it happens and meeting the needs of all survivors should always be a priority - but it becomes even more of a compelling priority during pandemics and other emergencies. Such crisis situations might exacerbate already existing risks of SGBV. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has forced upon us a reality check on progress (or lack of it) made on the gendered responses to end SGBV.
Confinement is expected to increase risks of intimate partner violence as well as reduce access to regular lifesaving SGBV services, said Dr Chivorn Var, Executive Director of Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) and Convener of 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR10). In China during the pandemic, the number of domestic violence complaints to the local police station tripled. In India during the lockdown, the number of domestic violence complaints almost doubled.
"The Pacific island countries have some of the highest recorded rates of SGBV with nearly 2 out of 3 (67%) women experiencing sexual or physical violence by a partner. The violence is recurrent and severe and impacts women, girls, children, families, and communities at large. While there are few very good crisis support services for survivors of SGBV, they are generally confined to the capital cities and are not always available in rural and remote areas" said Abigail Erikson, Ending Violence Against Women Programme Specialist, UN Women, Fiji Multi-Country Office.
"The public health measures taken to tackle COVID-19 such as, physical distancing and lockdown to confine people within homes - have added fuel to fire. There has been an increase in the calls to the national helpline numbers with 50% of the women reporting a correlation between violence and some of the COVID-19 containment measures. Service providers have reported that SGBV survivors who are already receiving support services are experiencing escalating violence that is more severe and more frequent" added Erikson.
Intimate partner violence in Cambodia
Dr Chivorn Var shared that "intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence faced by Cambodian women. 20% of Cambodian women have reported physical or sexual violence and 32% of women have ever experienced emotional violence by an intimate partner. The health consequences of such violence are devastating, and 66% of intimate partner violence survivors reported adverse physical and mental health consequences. A Cambodian national survey reveals that sexual abuse before age 18 is also an urgent concern. The common perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence against women have been identified as husbands, siblings, relatives, neighbours, friends, and intimate partners."
In Cambodia, schools and most businesses are closed due to COVID-19 but it is not mandatory to stay home. There does not seem to be any noticeable increase in the cases of SGBV due to the pandemic. But some organizations that were providing shelter homes for violence survivors have closed this service for those who are not in life threatening situations. "But it does not mean that the problem [of SGBV] does not happen in the communities and in the families" pointed out Dr Var.
Sexual and gender-based violence exacerbated in Tonga
"In Tonga more than 80% cases of sexual violence, including girl child sexual abuse cases as well as rape and incest cases, happen within the homes. 25% Tongan women have experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. But majority of the support and response services - like legal aid service, safe houses or shelter homes, counselling services, sexual and reproductive health services - for survivors of SGBV are centred in the main island. Women and children living in the 5 outer Tongan islands do not have direct access to all of these services" said Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Director of Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC), Tonga.
There has been an exacerbation of SGBV on women and girls in Tonga due to the pandemic. Typically, in a month, WCCC gets 20-24 new SGBV cases. But in the 15 days period of lockdown alone they had 20 cases. A high number of cases were reported to the police as well.
Although the suddenness of COVID-19 created a sense of panic, but the response was quick too. The online counselling services of WCCC were ramped up fast. All counsellors were given mobile phones and underwent a fast and rigid training on how to provide services in a woman’s home setting during lockdown period while maintaining confidentiality and ethics. This was no easy task as a typical Tonga home usually consists of at least 8 or 10 family members, said Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki.
She added that online social media platforms, such as Facebook, were also used to communicate with the women. Police support was taken to help the women - who walked out of their homes to escape violence - reach the support centres, without being turned back at the border checkpoints and without having to face the humiliation of narrating their story at every checkpoint.
Marginalized people lived in crises even before COVID-19
"Marginalised communities have always lived in crisis situations, even before the pandemic. Millions of girls and women face poverty, discrimination and violation based on their ethnicity, stateless status, gender, or sexual orientation. The LGBTIQ community are scared to seek public healthcare and/or other government services because homophobia and sexual discrimination hugely impacts their access to quality services" said Matcha Phorn-in, ethnic minority lesbian human rights defender and Executive Director of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project in Thailand.
She added that when COVID-19 struck, the marginalised communities were hit the hardest. They ran out of food and jobs very quickly. Moreover, for those stateless indigenous communities and undocumented migrant workers/ refugees living in Thailand who have no ID cards, government aid during the pandemic crisis was not available for them, which further heightens their vulnerabilities.
Is SGBV threatening the progress on SDGs?
Abigail Erikson underlined "If we do not address the central drivers of gender inequality, violence and discrimination, then we are not going to deliver on the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The money, resources and the political will that needs to be put into addressing SGBV should be unveiled against the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic and galvanize governments and civil society to direct all their efforts and resources into addressing all forms of SGBV. If this happens, it would be a positive outcome of the pandemic."
Dr Chivorn Var shared key highlights of a recent research paper by the Guttmacher Institute, based on data from 152 countries, covering 1.6 billion women of reproductive age. This research estimates that even a modest decline of 10% in access to reproductive healthcare (use of short and long acting reversible contraceptives), due to COVID-19, would result in an additional 15 million unintended pregnancies, 168,000 more new born deaths, 28,000 more maternal deaths and 3 million more unsafe abortions over the course of one year.
Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki rightly said to CNS (Citizen News Service) that this pandemic is a wake-up call to put our resources and political will together to end all forms of SGBV. Pacific island countries will have to strengthen their referral systems and fill up the existing gaps. All sexual and reproductive health services that women and girls need, including hygiene kits for girls, should be treated as essential services, and be accessible. There should also be a safe way of collecting data and information about the impact of COVID-19 on SGBV.
Matcha Phorn-in called for access to safe abortion for all women; comprehensive sexuality education in schools; legalisation of sex work; and laws to protect the rights of migrant workers, stateless people, sex workers and LGBTIQ community. "We need to change the system that fundamentally oppresses women. This pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to stall the progress made against SGBV" she said.
Gendered response to development is an urgent priority
"Governments must put in significant investment for primary prevention of violence, and ensure that women and girls, including survivors of violence, are part of the broader social protection plans. The political will should reflect in the national action plans with specific measures to address SGBV" said Abigail Erikson.
"In Cambodia we have laws, policies and programmes of action related to SGBV. We have to improve their implementation at ground level through intersectoral coordination at the national and subnational level. There is also a need to increase resources for continuity of care and lifesaving support and collection of age specific data on gender issues" said Dr Chivorn Var.
"We need more engagement of women at policy making level and government must listen to their voices to ensure an effective response to SGBV" stressed Matcha Phorn-in.
The gendered impacts of COVID-19 must be considered. Sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (SGBV) is a violation of human rights. It denies the human dignity of the individual and hurts human development. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls must guide all aspects of sustainable development, where no one is left behind.
(Shobha Shukla is the founding Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News Service) and coordinator of APCAT Media (Asia Pacific regional media network to end TB & tobacco and prevent NCDs). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or visit www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)