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Curbing the ‘shadow pandemic’

Part II: What governments and civil society organisations can do to address gender-based violence during the pandemic

Violence against women and girls is on the rise. In part one of this blog series, I examined how COVID-19 is spurring a ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence (GBV), especially in the home. This is due in part to the exacerbation of existing economic, social and gender inequalities. These inequalities can be related to gender, income, ethnic background, religion, disability, housing situation, sexuality, age, citizen status, occupation or other aspects of one’s identity. Often these factors overlap to create unique challenges and expose multiple levels of vulnerability and discrimination for women and girls experiencing GBV.

Here in part two, I look at what governments and civil society organisations should do to curb this shadow pandemic and the steps they can take to ensure that debilitating structural inequalities are simultaneously addressed. Interventions directed at just one area of marginalisation – violence against women for example – may be ineffective for groups facing multiple layers of marginalisation. As Kimberley Crenshaw said: “if we cannot see a problem, we cannot fix it”1.

We need to identify who the marginalised are and how their marginalisation is sustained by interlocking systems of oppression. Interventions to end GBV can therefore only be effective if they take an ‘intersectional lens’.

Here are four things that we can do to better address GBV during the pandemic:

1. Raise awareness and strengthen gender-based violence reporting channels

Many countries are experiencing reduced funding for GBV public health services and reduced access to healthcare services for survivors, while many women are finding it harder to escape abuse in the home2,3. Some countries have not reported an increase in GBV in the past months, but this does not necessarily mean that women are not facing increasing levels of violence in the home.

The Netherlands, for example, is not reporting an increase in GBV like its neighbouring countries. However, 99% of GBV reports in the country hinge on the reporting of social workers, whose visits have been suspended or reduced during the lockdown. Studies also show that if Dutch women report GBV, they only do so after the 33rd incident. Many others may feel disinclined to report abuse out of fear of losing their children, because the same organisation that responds to these incidents also deals with child abuse.

Raising public awareness and providing clear information as well as safe and discreet reporting mechanisms are key to adequately respond to GBV cases. Fier, a Dutch organisation that focuses only on women exposed to GBV and receives messages through a chat function, did see a 30% increase in GBV reports4. Pharmacies in France, Spain and Belgium have introduced the codeword ‘mask19’ for victims to discreetly ask for help. Meanwhile, Scotland has released £825,000 to Police Scotland to support the training of officers and frontline staff to respond to and investigate the new domestic abuse offence5. India’s National Commission for Women relaunched a WhatsApp number that has received one out of six new complaints of domestic violence6.

2. Support and work with ‘by and for’ organisations

Governments are racing against the clock to design and implement policies, interventions and strategies to respond to the COVID-19 health crisis. To prevent these measures from reinforcing GBV in the home, they need to be based on a proper analysis of the interests and needs of women and girls at increased risk of violence. This requires funding, learning from and collaborating with dedicated organisations working with survivors. ‘By and for’ organisations can most effectively and efficiently address the intersectional needs of marginalised women facing violence. These specialist organisations are independent and implement dedicated services ‘by and for’ the communities they seek to serve7. Scotland, for example, will invest £1.5 million in victim support groups and services8.

3. Engage men and boys

At the same time, we need to focus on men and reposition seeing violence against women as a men’s issue. For every support system we build for women, we need to implement informational campaigns that challenge the social norms that justify men’s violence and control over women and girls.

In many societies, there remains high social acceptance of using violence or control as a strategy for conflict resolution and protecting family honour over women’s safety9. More than a third of femicides are attributable to male partners, for example. Promundo also finds that Lebanese men who have witnessed violent behaviour from their fathers towards their mothers, are three times more likely to perpetrate physical violence in their adult relationship.

What’s more, more than one in five countries do not criminalise wife beating or marital rape (see for example KIT’s State of African Women report). And beyond legal reform, we need to support organisations and programmes that engage men and boys in longer-term interventions aimed at preventing GBV10. Youth-oriented programming for boys that also address gender norms have demonstrated promising results, both in terms of attitudes and self-reported GBV perpetration.

4. Integrate gender-based violence policies into COVID-19  responses

To avoid reinforcing violent behaviour, GBV policies need to be integrated into any sectoral responses to the pandemic, such as health, education or WASH. Canada and Australia have integrated funding for violence against women as part of their national plans to counter the damaging fall-out from COVID-19. The inter-agency GBV Guidelines Implementation Support Team has developed a helpful overview of sector-specific recommendations to prevent and address GBV11.

Policies that do not address gender and other intersecting inequalities will lead to ineffective interventions at best, or trigger more GBV at worst. In doing so, we will need to move from gender-blind, to gender sensitive, to genuinely transformative interventions based on intersectional analysis12. We can start by raising awareness, including targeting men and boys, improving reporting channels in collaboration with ‘by and for’ organisations, and integrating gender in all sector responses. Only in this way we can work towards a new normal, one with structurally less violence against women and girls.

*We focus this blog on violence in the home. However, we realise that women do not only face violence at home. Violence against women and girls is a widespread issue that can take place in the workplace, online, in the streets, in schools and universities, prisons and hospitals. Perpetrators are not only partners, but can be other family members, neighbours, strangers, states or (criminal) organisations (see Watts and Zimmerman 2002). Women and girls experience different types of violence throughout their life cycles from pre-birth, infancy and girlhood to adolescence, adulthood and elderly (see WHO typology of violence against women according to their life cycle).


1 Kimberly Crenshaw, TEDWomen 2016: The Urgency of Intersectionality

2 COVID-19: a public health approach to manage domestic violence is needed

3 Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children

4 De schaduw pandemie van ‘geweld achter de voordeur’

5 Coronavirus fund gives women’s domestic abuse charities £1.5m boost

6 Locked down with abusers: India sees surge in domestic violence

7 The value of intersectionality in understanding violence against women and girls (VAWG) July 2019

8 Coronavirus fund gives women’s domestic abuse charities £1.5m boost

9 Unicef: Attitudes and social norms on violence

10 Masculinities and COVID-19: Making the Connections

11 Identifying & mitigating gender-based violence risks within the COVID-19 response

12 Reordering gender systems: can COVID-19 lead to improved gender equality and health?

About the author

Andrea Vos is a development anthropologist with a focus on gender and rural development. She holds a research master in International Development Studies from the University of Amsterdam and specialises in qualitative research.


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