Global Insights into Lackluster Response to Gender Violence During Pandemic

December 8, 2020

For more than three decades, thousands of organizations around the world have observed 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls. The campaign runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day.

This year, the campaign is more crucial than ever, according to researchers in the Global Health Justice and Governance (GHJG) Program at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Initial data published in a report by UN Women shows that reports of gender-based violence (GBV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) in many countries increased drastically during COVID-19 lockdown periods.

This spike in violence against women and other groups, such as sex workers, migrants, refugees, and LGBTQ+ communities, is unfortunately predictable during public health emergencies, due to existing structural inequalities. Moreover, a GHJG assessment conducted in six countries, found that national governments were woefully underprepared to address the GBV crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To understand the impacts of the pandemic on women and girls, GHJG conducted a rapid assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on the availability and use of GBV services and on funding for GBV in six countries: Colombia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States. GHJG researchers conducted 148 interviews with service providers and donors across the six countries, as well as a review of government policies. The findings will soon be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

The assessment reveals that national policies did not prioritize GBV services at the outset of the pandemic, and there was confusion regarding which services were open and available to survivors. Thanks to a public outcry from GBV stakeholders and advocates in the six countries, some countries adopted national guidance prioritizing GBV services. In Kenya, the Ministry of Health released a “Practical Guide for Continuity of Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, and Family Planning Care and Services,” which defined care for GBV survivors as essential. In Colombia, the government issued a decree guaranteeing virtual access to justice services, only after a spike in GBV cases in the country.

According to respondents, lack of clarity, limited guidance from national governments, and lack of inclusion of GBV in emergency preparedness plans had detrimental impacts on GBV services and programs. GBV services were not deemed essential at the start of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown periods. Police and courts either closed or redirected efforts towards COVID relief. In Kenya, there was a de-prioritization of GBV cases by police along with low reporting of cases by survivors. In Nigeria, GBV survivors were unable to access police stations due to COVID-19 safety protocols, and some respondents said police harassed and arrested NGO staff. In most countries in the assessment, courts closed early in the pandemic and had a backlog of GBV cases once they reopened.

Domestic violence shelters were generally available but could not handle the increase in demand. In South Africa, women had to figure out how to access shelters while travel restrictions were in place. Even as demand for psychological counseling climbed, its availability was reduced due to the pandemic. Service providers shifted to hotlines and online platforms, where available, to meet demand.

“As with other public health emergencies, rates of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence have spiked during the current crisis. Sadly, governments have neglected or been slow to prioritize gender-based violence services and programs,” says Neetu John, PhD, assistant professor of population and family health at the Columbia Mailman School and a member of the GHJG team.

In order to plan for future emergencies, the researchers say national governments must integrate GBV into national emergency preparedness planning, and include GBV experts from feminist and community-based organizations on the frontlines of response in decision-making. Multiple sectors must be involved in the drafting and implementation of emergency policies, including health, justice, and protection, among others. However, it is not enough to draft a policy for GBV survivors, policy should be accompanied by earmarked funding and be consistently implemented across the country.

“Policy must be linked to appropriate funding and include accountability mechanisms to ensure that women and girls have access to high-quality GBV services, even during a global pandemic,” says John.