Combating The Shadow Pandemic Of Violence Against Women
Young school girls organize themselves before the March to End Gender-Based Violence in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  One sign reads: “Refrain from using abusive language for Women and Children”.

Violence against women and girls has been neglected during and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, and urgent efforts are needed to protect women, UNAIDS has said.

One in three women likely to experience violence at least once in their lifetime. Evidence indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant increases in gender-based violence in nearly all countries.

Speaking on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 25 November, UNAIDS called for urgent efforts for nations to improve or follow-through on neglected health services and outreach programmes to support victimes of violence or abuse.

“The growing evidence confirms that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are not gender-neutral,” said Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director. “The impacts of lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed in many countries to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the failure to designate sexual and reproductive health services and services for survivors of violence as essential services, and the undermining of women’s economic security have compounded the barriers for women and girls experiencing abuse, especially those who are trapped at home with their abusers.”

Ending violence against women is everyone’s business, and it is possible to make a difference during the 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence

The pandemic has both amplified violence against women, as well as currently existing gender inequalities, a panel of representatives from various ministries of health said. Service providers, representing Spain, Argentina, India and Iraq, discussed how their countries have implemented strategies to combat violence against women, including actively searching for cases of violence in COVID-19 patients, improving connectivity between victims and authorities, and creating outreach services.

Argentina – Actively Assisting Victims of Violence Who Do Not Come Forward

Argentina has implemented a program that actively searches out COVID-19 patients in their homes and social circles for cases of gender-based violence, as lockdown measures designed to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have made made it harder to connect with victims.

The country has focused its approach on implementing preventative measures to protect potential victims from future abuse, and has expanded its response to protect LGBTQ+ people. It has also made its sexual and reproductive health services more accessible, with non-discriminatory policies established. There has still been an increase in femicides between January and November, however, with 265 women murdered this year.

“We have learned during this long pandemic that we have to adjust our current mechanisms in place to defend women and combat gender-based violence,” said Argentina Minister of Health Dr. Gines Gonzalez Garcia. Garcia addressed the significant changes that have come with the pandemic – in people’s behaviors and emotional states. Economic changes especially can increase violence against women, and has stated that “there is still more to be done.”

Young Syrian refugees performed a silent play on the importance of education in preventing early marriage in the UN Women-led ‘Women and Girls Oasis’ in District 4 of the Za’atari refugee camp (Jordan) on the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign 2015.
Iraq – Addressing the Connection Between Health Emergencies and Gender-Based Violence

Iraq’s Ministry of Health has drafted human rights strategies and action plans to provide protective maternal, newborn, and child and adolescent health policies related to the pandemic. It has also developed education and communication materials and is assessing care provided for gender-based violence during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 showed us the link between health emergencies and gender-based violence,” said Dr. Riyadh Adbul Ameer Alhifi, of the Iraq Ministry of Health, noting that the role of the health system is to address both issues, with many survivors during the pandemic seeking mental health and psychosocial support.

Iraq saw high levels of domestic violence even before the pandemic, and the number has only risen since. At least 46% of married women are exposed to at least one form of spousal abuse, and 57% of them to domestic violence. Gender-based violence is also rooted in child marriages, with 20% of girls aged 15-19, and 5.5% of girls under the age of 15.

“It is important that gender-based violence services are included in the list of essential health services, and health facilities are equipped to properly answer survivors’ emotional, physical, and practical needs.”

Riyadh discussed the need to strengthen the referral system for gender-based violence survivors within the health system, and the need to address the social traditions and beliefs that perpetuate this violence. If these issues are not addressed, this will remain confined to the Ministry of Health – services will not improve and the number of victims will increase.

“Violence against women connot be reduced unless those beliefs and traditions change. This needs a great force in which all sectors in the country must contribute.”

Orange the World 2018 – Uganda
Ugandan police joined with UN Women Uganda, UN in Uganda & SafeBoda for a safe ride to mark the 16 Days Of Activism under the theme ‘Safe ride to end violence against women and girls’. Over 300 boda riders and other participants took part in the activity.
Spain – Facilitating Communication Through Technology and Pharmacies

Spain’s gender-based violance helpline has observed nearly 30,000 requests for assistance during the pandemic: an increase of nearly 60% from 2019. Emotional and psychological assistance against gender-based violence, which was devliered via WhatsApp during the strictest period of lockdown, received 2,500 requests. This service ended in June, when in-person services could be provided again.

As a result, Spain has established a contingency plan against gender-based violence with the Ministry of Equality, following the declaration of a state of emergency. These were strategic measures designed to help, prevent, control, and minimize the negative consequences for many victims of gender violence. While health laws in Spain allow for diagnosis and care for people suffering from violence in both primary and specialized health services, it is a common problem that seriously impacts health, said Dr. Pilar Apracio, Director of the National School of Public Health in Spain.

The government of Spain has taken measures to prevent femicide, facilitating connections through telephone and internet. A network in pharmacies has also been created that allows women who go into pharmacies to contact the pharmacist, connecting the pharmacy to the helpline and authorities.

Added Apracio: “If you facilitate the communication, this contributes to solving problems women have to face in gender violence situations.”

The second wave of COVID-19 indicates the possibility that there will once more be an increase of physical violence in the new phase of the pandemic, and people have been urged to not let their guard down against gender-based violence.

Activism against Gender-Based Violence at the National University of Lao, Dong Dok campus
India – Health Experts Ensuring Safety for Victims of Gender-Based Violence

India has seen a decrease in incidence of domestic and sexual violence reported, due to a lack of transportation during lockdown and fear of contracting COVID-19. The severity of the cases of those victims who have come forward, however, has increased.

The Government Medical College and Hospital Aurangabad has created a section of the hospital for victims of sexual violence, where experts such as gynecologists, pediactricians, surgeons, forensic specialists, and psychiatrists are on staff to console and treat victims. A shelter has also been created in the medical college admission ward to ensure the safety of its patients.

Dr. Shrinivas Gadappa of the Government Medical College brought up the importance of training practitioners to recognize the signs of gender-based violence, especially in the primary healthcare system, citing difficulty in screening for both domestic violence and COVID-19, and called it a “loophole in this pandemic”.

Workshops to train practitioners is very important in increasing sensitivity towards and awareness of gender-based violence, Gadappa added. Primary health care centers should be strengthened to deal with such cases during the pandemic which will, in turn, increase the amount of women reporting instances of violence, he said.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a final statement, said that countries need to increase accessibility to healthcare that aids women affected by violence, implementing it as an essential service, as well as offering more resources towards training health professionals on how to identify women experiencing abuse, and how to provide first line support.

“All women have the right to live free of violence and coercion, working together, we can build gender responsive, health and social protection systems to keep all women safer and healthier.”

Image Credits: UN Women Tanzania/Deepika Nath, UN Women, UN Women, UN Women/ Martin Ninsiima, DANHO/Daniel Hodgso.

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