Africa: Action Against Gender-Based Violence Being Pushed to the Outlying Margins of the Global Covid-19 Response

Nearly 1 in 3 women have experienced violence, globally. In times of crises, the numbers may be even higher. Gender-based violence is the most pervasive violation of human rights, but it is neither natural, nor inevitable. It can and must be prevented.

A new Oxfam report shows an undeniable increase in gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 pandemic around the world to which too many governments and donors are not doing enough to tackle.

The report, The Ignored Pandemic: The Dual Crisis of Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19, showed the number of calls made by survivors to domestic violence hotlines in ten countries during the first months of lockdown. The data reveals a 25 - 111 percentage surge; in Argentina (25%), Colombia (79%), Tunisia (43%), China (50%), Somalia (50%), South Africa (69%), UK (25%), Cyprus (39%), Italy (73%) and the largest increase in Malaysia where calls surged by over 111%.

In many households, coronavirus has created a 'perfect storm' of social and personal anxiety, stress, economic pressure, social isolation, including with abusive family members or partners, and rising alcohol and substance use, resulting in increases in domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, India too recorded an increase of 250 percent of domestic violence cases, according to the National Commission for Women. Domestic violence counselors there reported being unable to reach women and girls who were grievously injured or suicidal or those whose partners controlled their access to phones.

The report shows that not enough countries have acted with sufficient seriousness to tackle the GBV pandemic. Even before the surge in GBV cases sparked by the pandemic, in 2018 alone, over 245 million women and girls were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner - a greater number than the global total of coronavirus cases (199m) between October 2020 and October 2021.

"It is a scandal that millions of women and girls, and LGBTQIA+ people have to live through this double pandemic of violence and COVID-19. GBV has led to injuries, emotional distress, and increasing poverty and suffering, all of which are utterly inexcusable and avoidable. The pandemic has exposed the systematic failure of governments around the world to protect women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people from violence against them - simply because of who they are," said Oxfam International Executive Director Gabriela Bucher.

Women's rights organizations whose mission is to support women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people from violence have been more likely to have been hit by funding cuts, exactly at the time when their work is most needed. In an Oxfam survey published in June this year, over 200 women's rights organizations across 38 countries reported reduced funding and shrinking access to decision-making spaces. Thirty-three percent had to lay off between one to ten staff, while nine percent had to close altogether.

Even though 146 UN member states have formally declared their support for action against GBV in their COVID-19 response and recovery plans, only a handful have followed through. Of the $26.7 trillion that governments and donors mobilized to respond to the pandemic in 2020, just 0.0002% has gone into combating GBV.

"The pandemic has worsened long-standing gender discriminations, and this has increased the vulnerability of women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people to violence and abuse. If governments do not deliberately initiate strong, properly funded strategies to tackle this, the gains made in women's empowerment in the last 30 years are at risk. We need to avert this, and the time is now," said Bucher.

A few governments, however, have made efforts to respond to the GBV crisis. For instance, Indonesia and New Zealand introduced national protocols and identified GBV service providers as essential workers. South Africa took steps to strengthen GBV reporting channels.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that commences today until 10 December 2021 provides an opportunity for governments, donors, and activists to reflect on the emerging issues of inequality that put women and girls at risk and address them urgently. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that governments can take extraordinary measures to protect their citizens and respond to deadly crises when spurred to action. We need to see more efforts to tackle gender-based violence.

Oxfam recommends that states and governments ensure a more coordinated, comprehensive, and multi-sectoral GBV response that enables survivors to access effective and quality services. Governments and donors should channel more funding to women's rights organizations and feminist movements working to end GBV and support survivors. Additionally, more funding should be allocated to better data collection and analysis of gender-disaggregated national statistics to inform evidence-based interventions to end GBV.

"As the world comes together to mark 30 years of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, there is an urgent need for a truly gendered approach in every country's effort to respond to and recover from COVID-19. Governments and donors need to live up to their commitments to promote gender equality by ensuring investment in all the areas we know could help end GBV. Only by doing so can we strive for a future that is more just, safe, and in which people live free from discrimination," said Bucher.

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