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Gender-Based Violence in the Age of COVID-19

Resources for GBV Prevention and Response During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This article originally appeared on the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG) website. The IGWG is a network of multiple nongovernmental organizations, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), cooperating agencies, and the Bureau for Global Health of USAID.

Throughout history, global pandemics and disease outbreaks have posed wide-ranging threats to the health and overall well-being of women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. As countries around the world combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not surprising that these populations are once again experiencing poor outcomes, including increased gender-based violence (GBV). Due to gender inequalities, women and girls carry out the majority of unpaid caregiving and domestic work, limiting their education and economic opportunities, especially during a health crisis. The COVID-19 health crisis has exacerbated gender inequalities, including women’s and girls’ existing economic vulnerabilities, leaving many at heightened risk of poor reproductive health outcomes and GBV.

Gender-Based Violence Reports Increase Under Measures to Contain COVID-19

Government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions on movement to contain the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, combined with the health, economic, and social stressors of the pandemic, increase the risk of GBV and make it harder for those in need to access GBV response services. For example, people may be trapped at home with their abusers with no way to access help. Additionally, the availability of GBV prevention and response services—already insufficient in many places—may decrease further as resources are diverted to the COVID-19 response.

GBV has long been a global problem, even without the presence of other crises. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three women worldwide reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime. And new data suggest that the pandemic is exacerbating the situation everywhere. The recently launched GBV Tracker documents the increasing GBV cases resulting from lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and encourages organizations working with GBV survivors to share their data to help maintain an updated count of cases around the world. For example:

  • Within the first seven days of lockdown in South Africa, more than 2,000 complaints of GBV were made to the South African Police Service and 148 people were arrested and charged with GBV crimes.
  • A Vancouver-based domestic violence crisis line experienced a 300% increase in calls during the first three weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Survivors of GBV have also increased their utilization of internet-based resources: A United Kingdom-based website saw a 150% surge in traffic after government-issued lockdowns, and a state-run hotline website in Spain saw a 270% increase.
  • In the city of Jingzhou, China, police officers received three times as many domestic violence calls in February 2020 as they did during this same time in 2019.
  • A women’s rights organization in Nairobi saw an increase in the average number of calls received to report cases of violence against women, and the National Council on Administration of Justice reported a surge in sexual offenses between March 16 and April 1, 2020.
  • According to UN Women, reports of domestic violence in France increased 30% following the country’s lockdown, and help lines in Cyprus and Singapore have received 30% and 33% more calls, respectively.
  • In Brazil, where the federal government has not issued lockdown orders, a state-run drop-in center has seen a 40% to 50% rise in demand. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25% since its lockdown started.
  • The United Nations estimates that due to COVID-19 disrupting efforts to end child marriage and prevent female genital mutilation (FGM), an additional 13 million child marriages and 2 million FGM cases might occur over the next decade that otherwise would have been avoided.

Resources for GBV Prevention and Response During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the information environment has been crowded with technical resources, guidance, tools, and other materials to help health care workers, policymakers, program implementers, and others navigate the shadow pandemic of GBV. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. The GBV Task Force reviewed many of the technical resources delivered to our inboxes over the last few months and asked experts implementing GBV prevention and response activities during the pandemic to share resources they found most useful in their work. Below, we highlight some of our favorites. Although our list focuses on those designed for facility- and community-based frontline providers, these resources are also useful to use when designing policies and programs to address GBV in the context of COVID-19.

Resource #1: How to Support Survivors of Gender-Based Violence When a GBV Actor Is Not Available in Your Area: A Step-by-Step Pocket Guide for Humanitarian Practitioners.

  • What it is: This Pocket Guide from GBV Guidelines and GBV Area of Responsibility (AoR) contains step-by-step information for humanitarian practitioners on how to support GBV survivors where no actors involved in GBV prevention and response efforts or referral pathways are available.
  • Why we like it: Given the increased risk of violence to women and vulnerable populations everywhere during the COVID-19 pandemic, all frontline providers—including non-GBV specialists—need to be prepared to support a survivor of GBV in the event that a survivor discloses or seeks their support. This resource also includes specific guidance to support children and adolescents under age 18 experiencing violence. While not developed specifically for the COVID-19 context, this guide uses global standards on providing basic support and information to survivors of GBV without doing further harm. Among its practical tips and tools is a list of do’s and don’ts, examples of what to say when someone discloses violence, and an information sheet that can be completed on the range of services available in a particular area to which a survivor may need to be linked.

Resource #2: Identifying and Mitigating Gender-Based Violence Risks Within the COVID-19 Response.

  • What it is: This tip sheet from the Global Protection Cluster and Inter-Agency Standing Committee provides guidance on how non-GBV specialist humanitarian actors across a variety sectors involved in the COVID-19 response—including education; livelihoods; health; nutrition; child protection; risk communications and community engagement (RCCE); and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); among others—can play a role in identifying and mitigating GBV risks during the pandemic.
  • Why we like it: Even during a global pandemic, effectively identifying and responding to GBV requires a multisectoral response. Indeed, it is more important than ever that all actors involved in efforts to respond to COVID-19 take GBV into account within their program planning and implementation. Referencing the Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, and Quality (AAAQ) framework and established practices for addressing GBV, this resource helps actors within a variety of sectors recognize how their services may be critical entry points for connecting survivors with GBV services during the COVID-19 response and tries to address the full range of issues that they may face. In addition, many actors will have to implement RCCE activities as part of their COVID-19 response. A technical brief from the USAID-supported Breakthrough ACTION project, Integrating Gender into the COVID-19 Risk Communication and Community Engagement Response, provides useful recommendations for how actors across sectors can integrate a gender lens—and thus, address GBV—in their COVID-19 RCCE activities.

Resource #3: Not Just Hotlines and Mobile Phones: GBV Service Provision During COVID-19.

  • What it is: This technical briefing note from UNICEF outlines creative and practical solutions “for providing survivors with non-phone, low/no-tech options to alert trustworthy stakeholders of their need for GBV services given the restrictions on movement as a result of COVID-19.” It provides options that can be adapted to a variety of settings depending on the survivor’s circumstances.
  • Why we like it: In the context of quarantines, lockdowns, and the need for physical distancing, there has been a big push to offer GBV counseling and other services remotely, including via hotlines, Whatsapp, and other online platforms. This resource acknowledges the reality that many GBV survivors do not have safe or reliable access to phone, internet, or email to obtain crucial health and legal services and offers alternative alert and support systems for meeting their needs during this especially challenging time.

Resource #4: Series on Preventing Violence Against Women During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

  • What it is: This series of briefing notes from Raising Voices is designed to support activist organizations in adapting and sustaining their violence against women prevention activities during the pandemic.
  • Why we like it: Raising Voices has long been a trusted, field-based leader in the prevention of violence against women and children, known for its groundbreaking community mobilization approach, SASA! Through these briefing notes, designed for organizations with existing expertise delivering GBV prevention and response services, Raising Voices offer their insights on how to safely and ethically sustain those services in the context of COVID-19 restrictions and challenges. Importantly, they include guidance for enhancing self and collective care during this time.

Resource #5: Staff Care and Support During the COVID-19 Crisis.

  • What it is: This briefing note from the Gender-Based Violence AoR offers good practices for supporting the safety and well-being of staff working on GBV prevention, mitigation, and response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Why we like it: We must acknowledge that frontline providers, especially those addressing GBV, will experience increased stressors in their work during the pandemic. Urging employers and managers to promote opportunities for staff connection, this brief provides a list of common stressors specific to the COVID-19 outbreak impacting the general population and frontline workers. Ensuring staff feel safe and supported must be a priority to protect their own well-being, prevent burn out, minimize disruptions to essential services during the pandemic, and promote individual and organizational resiliency.

Many other helpful resources exist to address GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic beyond this sampling of resources. If you are a practitioner, we would love to hear how you are using these resources and/or other resources you’ve found helpful. Please share your insights by writing to the GBV Task Force at IGWG@prb.org.

This document is made possible by the generous support of USAID under cooperative agreement AID-AA-A-16-00002. The information provided in this document is the responsibility of Population Reference Bureau, is not official U.S. government information, and does not necessarily reflect the views or positions of USAID or the U.S Government.

Featured image by Josh Estey for USAID.

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Rose Wilcher

Director of Knowledge Management and Structural Interventions, HIV Division

Rose Wilcher is the Director of Knowledge Management and Structural Interventions for HIV programs at FHI 360 and a member of the senior management team for the LINKAGES and Meeting Targets and Maintaining Epidemic Control (EpiC) projects. Rose has been at FHI 360 for 18 years, during which she has provided technical leadership and management oversight to HIV and reproductive health projects, with a focus on translating evidence into policy and practice. She has experience implementing a range of research-to-practice strategies, including stakeholder engagement, advocacy, development of evidence-based programmatic resources, capacity building, and provision of technical assistance to global and national partners. Rose also provides technical assistance to programs on the use of evidence-based gender integration strategies and co-chairs the Gender-based Violence Task Force of USAID’s Interagency Gender Working Group. Rose has published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature on topics addressing family planning, HIV prevention and care for women and key populations, and gender integration.

Francesca Alvarez

Francesca Alvarez is a program associate in International Programs. She joined PRB in 2018. She works primarily with the PACE—Policy, Advocacy, and Communication Enhanced for Population and Reproductive Health—Project, SAFE ENGAGE, and Empowering Evidence-Driven Advocacy. Alvarez previously worked with the University of North Carolina Arts & Sciences Foundation and Nourish International. She is interested in international development and women’s rights and is excited to learn more about international policymaking processes through her work at PRB. Alvarez holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and global studies, with concentrations in international politics and Latin America, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She hopes to pursue a career in international and human rights law, and she speaks conversational Spanish.

Stephanie Perlson

Stephanie Perlson is a senior policy advisor at Population Reference Bureau and co-chair of the IGWG Gender-Based Violence Task Force.

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