Solving the Shadow Pandemic: 5 actions needed now to end gender-based violence

By Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General, CARE International

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, CARE International Secretary General, Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro outlines 5 critical steps governments and policy makers must take now to condemn gender-based violence to history.

Violence against women and girls or gender-based violence (GBV), whether it takes place in the home, in the workplace, in public spaces, schools or communities is one of the most widespread human rights abuses around the worldOn average, 1 in 3 women globally experiences physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, usually from an intimate partner.  In addition to devastating impacts on the dignity, security and wellbeing of survivors, violence against women also has broad social and economic costs across societiesincluding costs on public services, lost income and productivity.

As a longstanding concern that is rooted in gender inequality and which no society or community is immune to, violence against women in all its forms increases during crises and the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.  The social and economic strains of the pandemic, compounded by movement restrictions, have led to a surge in reports of domestic violence, in country after country. With households losing income and schools remaining closed in many contexts, girls are at particular risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, teenage pregnancy, early and forced marriage and other harmful practices.

According to UN projections, every three months lockdown measures continue, an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence could be expected globally. Icountries such as Argentina, Cyprus and Singapore emergency calls for domestic violence cases increased by 25-30 per cent during the first wave of lockdowns, while in South Africa, more than 2,000 complaints of GBV were made to the South African Police Service in the first 7 days of that country’s lockdown.

In my home, Ecuador, GBV hotlines actually saw a decrease in calls at the start of the pandemic because many women were trapped in small one-room homes with their aggressors, and did not feel safe to call. Our partner organization Federación de Mujeres de Sucumbíos developed a simple but effective mobile phone emoji system to help counter this, so that women could reach out with coded emojis when they felt in danger.

Today marks the start of the global 16 Days of Activism campaign with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the extent of the problem, is also offers a critical opportunity for civil society, governments and businesses to ‘build forward’ and take stronger action to address what is increasingly referred to as a ‘shadow pandemic.

We surveyed colleagues and gender experts from 50 countries in the CARE network to offer concrete solutions.  This is what they said were the main priorities for action:

<p style="margin-left:0in"><span style="font-size:12px"><span style="color:black">Women on the Move is a CARE regional strategy to mobilize savings groups in West Africa, so that women and girls can assert their basic economic and social rights. Evidence has shown that women-led savings groups are a powerful platform for promoting women&rsquo;s economic empowerment, women&rsquo;s voices and gender equality. </span></span></p>  <p style="margin-left:0in"><span style="font-size:12px"><span style="color:black">The Women on the Move Impact Growth Strategy for West Africa and Women Lead in Emergencies have a shared goal of increasing women&rsquo;s collective voice and action, wich is that 8 million women and girls between the age of 15 and 64 will be economically and socially empowered through savings groups by 2020.</span></span></p>

1. Ensure survivors and those at risk of violence have access to comprehensive support including quality health services,  psychosocial support, justice and legal services, shelters and safe spaces and economic assistance.

These essential services must be included in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans, resourced adequately and made accessible in the context of social distancing measures, for example by creating remote ways to access support.  In countries such as Haiti, Nigeria, Jordan and Laos, CARE is supporting access to GBV services in various ways including setting up hotlines for survivors to access remote counselling and referrals. We are also supporting local partners and governments to raise awareness of GBV and reach those at risk.

<p style="margin-left:0cm;margin-right:0cm"><span style="font-size:11pt"><strong>Kirupalini Karunakaran, Weaver, Sri Lanka</strong></span></p>  <p style="margin-left:0cm;margin-right:0cm"><span style="font-size:11pt"><strong><em>&ldquo;I am father and mother to my son and now, thanks to my business, I can buy him what he needs.&rdquo;</em></strong><em>&nbsp; </em></span></p>  <p style="margin-left:0cm;margin-right:0cm"><span style="font-size:11pt">Kirupalini, 32, runs her own weaving business selling beautiful handwoven garments to markets in the capital of Colombo over 300km away, as well as to buyers in other regions. </span></p>  <p style="margin-left:0cm;margin-right:0cm"><span style="font-size:11pt">But behind her smile and this strong looking woman, there is a different story of daily struggle and a past clouded by growing up during Sri Lanka&rsquo;s 30-year civil war.&nbsp; Aged 19, she was hit by shrapnel from a bomb blast and has a visible welt in her arm as a daily reminder.&nbsp; Towards the end of the war there was major displacement within the country and Kiurpalini, her parents and her seven siblings had to quickly leave the safety of their own home, before it was razed to the ground.&nbsp; She adds: &ldquo;I can&rsquo;t count the number of places we moved to, sometimes it was two days here, a week there, but eventually we ended up in Menik Farm camp for six months.&rdquo;</span></p>  <p style="margin-left:0cm;margin-right:0cm"><span style="font-size:11pt">It was at this camp where she married her school friend and she quickly fell pregnant.&nbsp; Sadly, he left her when she was only three months pregnant. Her son, now aged eight, has a brain injury and attends a special needs school.&nbsp;&nbsp; She glows with pride when she speaks about her son and pulls out her phone to show pictures, adding: &ldquo;I am father and mother to my son and now, thanks to my business, I can buy him what he needs.&rdquo;&nbsp; She has also become President of the Spe

2. Promote the economic, social and political empowerment of women and girls

This includes supporting economic empowerment and livelihoods programs, social protection and safety nets that support women and girls and access to safe and equitable education for girls and boys. This importantly also includes promoting the leadership and meaningful participation of women and girls at all levels of decision-making, where they today remain conspicuously absent; including in COVID-19  response teams globally as we revealed in our recent report: Where are the Women?

Protection center - Buzi
Background: Women and girls affected by Cyclone Idai are still facing serious health risks due to access to basic healthcare and protection services, as well as shortages of menstrual hygiene support. The situation is particularly difficult for girls attending school. CARE is working with community volunteers to raise awareness on issues such as gender based violence and protection at schools and in the communities. CARE is establishing three friendly spaces in the district of Buzi  CARE’s cyclone response:
Background: In March 2019, cyclone Idai slammed into Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe with speeds of more than 200 kilometers per hour, causing severe damage. One month after Idai, a second storm hit northern Mozambique while the country was still recovering from cyclone Idai. More than 600 people died and 1,600 were injured during the unprecedented disasters of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, crops have been destroyed and livelihoods lost as a result of these storms. 
It is the first time in recorded history that two strong tropical cyclones have hit the country during the same season. An estimated 750,000 people still require immediate assistance. The impact of the cyclones goes well beyond food insecurity, negatively affecting nutrition, health, education, water and sanitation. 
Cyclone Idai destroyed more than 700,000 hectares of crops including maize, ground nut, cassava, beans and rice. All of the fields have been indurated. Experts estimate that the agricultural loss in Mozambique is at least USD 141 million high. More than 73,000 people are living in temporary shelters, most of them are schools and community buildings. Over 3,000 classrooms have been destroyed, over 330,000 students have been affected.
What CARE is doing: CARE has assisted more than 300.000 people affected by the crisis with food assistance, access to water and education, shelter and drought-resist

3. Support and expand policies, programs and strategies that promote gender equality in social norms, attitudes and behaviours and that address the root causes of violence. 

It is critical to engage men, boys, community leaders and other community members in challenging and transforming patriarchal norms, practices and beliefs that justify violence against women. An example of how this can work is the Indashyikirwa program implemented by CARE and partners in Rwanda, which reduced rates of intimate partner violence by 55% amongst women, through a combination of a village savings and loans associations (VSLA) approach combined with couples’ workshops designed to address harmful norms and household power inequalities.


4. Increase funding, support and space for organizations that promote women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality, particularly local women-led and women’s rights organizations that are on the frontlines of action on GBV as well as youth-led and LGBTQI+ rights organizations.

Vide: Year in review 2020

5. Ensure public planning and budgeting processes and public financial systems integrate gender equality principles and gender analysis, and make sure adequate public resources are allocated for GBV prevention, risk mitigation, and response.

Fortunately, there is now an international instrument available that can help advance many of these priorities. Last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a new global convention that addresses violence and harassment in the world of work, including GBV. Convention 190 applies to both formal and informal workers, protects workers wherever they find themselves in the course of doing their jobs, and covers online abuse and domestic violence in its scope. 

So far only two countries – Uruguay and Fiji – have formally ratified it. All governments have an opportunity to take action on GBV by ratifying and implementing the convention. The shadow pandemic has made it clearer how much this international legislation is needed.   

There is no vaccine that will end GBV. What is needed instead is profound structural and social change at all levels of society, led by governments, businessespublic and private institutionscivil society and ordinary people.  We must support women, girls and organizations that are leading efforts to support survivors, challenge patriarchal practices, and advance gender equality. CARE is contributing to this efforglobally, including through partnerships with women’s rights groups in 39 countries and supporting 2.3 million people in 64 countries to access information and services for GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic

In 2020, systems across the world have been tested, and when it comes to gender-based violence, they have been found severely wanting. As we face a future with greater economic and social challenges, we must make every effort to guarantee a life free from violence for women and girls everywhere