In Focus: Ending violence against women in the context of COVID-19
Article table of contents:
‘We must provide resources for women’s civil society organizations on the front lines’ – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
On 29 September, UN Women hosted a high-level event alongside the UN General Assembly to highlight the achievements and challenges of the global response to increased violence against women and girls during the pandemic. It also launched the UN Secretary-General’s engagement strategy on gender-based violence.
The event, “Gender-Based Violence in a COVID-19 Context: ‘Activating Collective Responses, Innovative Partnerships and Proven Policies'", allowed front line organizations to share their experiences and included frank panel discussions involving representatives of civil society organizations, private foundations, government actors and leaders of the UN Women Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence.
Voices of civil society organizations
Front line organizations funded by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) featured prominently in the event. They described what they had done, lessons learned and what is needed while working to respond to and address violence against women and girls during the pandemic.
Norah Ngwa, Coordinator for the Rural Women Center for Education and Development in Cameroon, explained how localized efforts by small, women’s rights organizations had ensured that women and girls were at the forefront of the work.
Sharp rise in violence
The second UN Trust Fund brief on the COVID-19 impact confirmed that women and girls are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis, with violence against them continuing to rise at alarming rates. Simultaneously, support services for survivors of this violence are being diverted or discontinued.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the violence “affects everyone and damages everyone.” He added:
“We need to increase accountability and question attitudes and approaches that enable violence.”
Echoing his message, UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called for support for civil society and women’s rights organizations who are often first responders to the urgent needs of women and girl survivors and at risk of violence:
“The pandemic has forced us all to think differently and re-build better […] Innovation and organizations like these are key to our response.”
With this in mind, she announced the launch of the UN Trust Fund’s 24th Call for Proposals specifically seeking applications from front line civil society organizations that are responding to the rise of violence against women and girls in the context of the pandemic.
Baroness Liz Sugg CBE, the UK’s Minister for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Girls’ Education, announced additional funding for the UN Trust Fund to “deliver real change on the ground”.
Rashmi Singh, Programme Director of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), which runs services for individuals affected by domestic and interpersonal violence in India, explained that calls to its helpline fell at the outset of the pandemic. They soon realized that, “if [women] are in the home with [their] abuser, [they] had less space to make those calls.” So they immediately went out and publicized the hotline and began working with survivors. “We reached out to all of them”, she said.
Rashmi Singh also stressed the importance of donor flexibility, such as the policies enacted by the UN Trust Fund, in creating an enabling environment to allow PCVC to adapt to the crisis situation.
The event ended by calling on UN Member States, civil society, the private sector, philanthropists and international organizations to commit to achieving concrete results in ending gender-based violence.
Grassroots organizations currently supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) came together in virtual meetings to discuss in detail the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on violence against women and girls, and on their own organizations.
The two meetings, which followed a virtual gathering of all UN Trust Fund grantees on 16 April, involved nearly 100 participants representing 40 organizations in French-speaking countries/territories and in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Women and girls at heightened risk
Julienne Lusenge, Director of the Fund for Congolese Women, summed up one of the key problems of the lockdown measures being imposed worldwide:
“The […] idleness of men expose[s] women and girls to the risk of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence during confinement […] Women become easy prey.”
She added that in her country, loss of income has forced some parents to send their young daughters to beg on the streets, putting them at grave risk of violence. She noted that, as had happened during the Ebola crisis:
“Women must travel long distances in search of water, unprotected and therefore at risk of contamination.”
Hassan Naji of the Ennakhil Association in Morocco described a rise in domestic violence and the number of children witnessing such violence during the lockdown. He warned:
"If we do not intervene, it risks generating a new generation of violence.”
He added that many violent husbands are exploiting the lockdown to punish wives who had previously initiated divorce proceedings or filed complaints against them.
Several participants at the meeting said that women and girls already at heightened risk of violence – such as those living with disabilities, indigenous women, and lesbian, bisexual, transgender women and girls – are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis and are often invisible in reports on violence during the pandemic.
Challenges facing front line organizations
Participants noted that front line organizations, many of which are small and women-led, have been hit hard by the pandemic just when they are needed most. They described the challenge of maintaining crucial services for marginalized women and girls while operating with scarce resources. Liz Meléndez, Executive Director of Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristán in Peru commented:
“During COVID-19 and in the post-pandemic context, it is essential to strengthen women's organizations, so that they monitor the government measures, increase their community response capacities, re-invent themselves to become more resilient in times of uncertainties.”
Sandra Hollinger, a Portfolio Manager of the UN Trust Fund, added:
“The central role of women’s rights organizations becomes clear during this COVID-19 pandemic. These organizations are often first responders for women survivors of violence and offer indispensable support for women and girls in response to the risks that they face. This is all the more important in this context where support systems are overstretched.”
The UN Trust Fund is committed to resourcing the lifesaving work of women’s organizations as first responders in providing services to women and girl survivors of violence during the pandemic.
‘We cannot leave women behind and alone’ – Meliha Sendic
In response to the worldwide health crisis, all current UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) stakeholders came together on a virtual platform to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on global systems to prevent and end violence against women and girls. The meeting welcomed over 280 participants representing small organizations, women’s rights organizations, civil society actors, donors, government development agencies and UN partners from around the globe.
Voices from the field
In the opening session, three panellists representing UN Trust Fund grantees described the devastating impact of lockdowns and social distancing on women, and the role of women’s organizations as first responders.
Meliha Sendic, President of the Center of Women's Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said:
“For women, [lockdown] means that they have to stay in home with a violent partner[...] There is no on-duty service officer to whom women and those exposed to violence can turn for help. There is no one to monitor what happens after the dark.”
Sendic stressed that in a vacuum of institutional service provision (such as closed courts and overwhelmed social protection and healthcare systems), the only place where women victims/survivors of violence can seek help are women’s organizations.
Gaudence Mushimiyimana, co-founder and Executive Director of the Rwandan Organization of Women with Disability (UNABU), said that public information about COVID-19 is not reaching women and girls living with disabilities in remote areas, who are particularly vulnerable to violence. To fill in the gaps, UNABU conducted a rapid phone assessment of beneficiaries:
“Many of them reported the fear of sexual violence because movement around their houses is restricted and therefore perpetrators may take advantage.”
Rashmi Singh, Programme Director of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) in India, noted a threefold increase in reports of violence and requests for psychosocial counselling on chat apps. She also described the healthcare system’s decreased capacity to provide help to burn victims, “The hospitals are only taking the serious cases now […] The burn wards have been converted into COVID wards”. PCVC identifies this risk to women survivors and is collaborating with local hospitals, ensuring they are on the frontline of support for women survivors of violence.
Building on existing programmes
In open interventions, grantees shared how they are adapting current programmes based on what they’ve done in past health crises. For instance, Abiy Seifu from Episcopal Relief and Development in Liberia said they were enhancing existing programmes based on what they did during the Ebola crisis.
Grantees cited interventions that include flexible planning, reducing stigma and extending the reach of programmes.
Impact of pandemic
Over the course of one month, 122 of 144 grantees in 69 countries and territories shared with the UN Trust Fund their experiences of the impact of COVID-19. Their responses point to a sharp increase in violence against women and girls in multiple forms, including:
- intimate partner violence
- sexual abuse
- violence against women and girls in humanitarian settings
- emotional and economic abuse
- assault by law enforcement
Simultaneously, women’s rights and other organizations that are first responders to violence against women and girls are themselves under enormous pressure and are operating with constrained resources because of the health crisis.
Vital women’s rights organizations are reorganizing their work while protecting the health of their staff and beneficiaries. Increased and sustained support is vital.
Swift response by UN Trust Fund
The UN Trust Fund announced a 5-point action plan to immediately support grantees during the crisis. The plan will:
- Acknowledge and approve delays in grantee reporting, including final and evaluation reports.
- Exercise utmost flexibility to enable grantees to modify or delay project activities.
- Share resources and guidance to help grantees navigate the public health crisis.
- Accept budget reallocation requests to meet core costs to ensure business continuity and minimize the negative impact of COVID-19.
- Approve no-cost extension requests for grantee projects.
Importance of funders
Hakima Abbas, Co-Executive Director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), stressed the importance of funders responding to these unprecedented challenges:
“It's important to prioritize grants to communities most affected […] including movements led by women and girls with disabilities […] and those on the front lines of rights-based approaches. Violence against women and girls is itself a crisis […] funders need to be on the side of genuine change.”
Government representatives expressed messages of solidarity and presented their COVID-19 plans that include support to small women’s rights organizations. Chloe Pratt, Programme Manager of the Violence against Women and Girls Team at the UK’s Department of International Development, said that too frequently, violence against women and girls is not prioritized in humanitarian responses. She added:
“Secondary impacts can be just as deadly as the disease itself […] Women should not be forgotten in this context […] supporting women’s movements is the best way to achieve lasting change.”
Lisa Mossberg, Strategy Coordinator, Global Gender Equality and Women and Girls' Rights, Unit for Global Social Development at Sida (Sweden), confirmed that:
“We recognize the need for long-term core support is key to stay relevant and stay flexible in a situation like this”, she said.
Kathleen Flynn-Dapaah, Acting Director, Education and Gender-Based Violence and Child Protection, Global Affairs Canada, confirmed support of the UN Trust Fund’s COVID-19 response plans saying:
“We're committed to ensuring that grassroots organizations have the resources required to respond.”
Ciarán Breen, Third Secretary, UN and International Financial Institutions Unit, Development Cooperation and Africa Division, Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ireland, closed the session by saying:
“Ireland's message is that we are all in this together […] it is essential to safeguard and ensure continuity and support women’s rights organizations.”
Trust the expertise of women’s organizations
Aldijana Sisic, Chief of the UN Trust Fund, closed the meeting by saying:
“First responders, small women’s organizations, know exactly what they are doing. The pandemic of violence against women has been here for a long time. This situation might be unpredictable, the situation of a lockdown is new, but there is a wealth of knowledge because you know how to adjust, what to do to support beneficiaries and survivors.”
Addressing the UN Trust Fund grantees directly, she said:
“We will continue to assess and gather information […] and continue advocacy for core support of women’s organizations that is needed.”
UN Trust Fund's stakeholder community exchange on COVID-19 impact to violence against women protection system (posted 13 April 2020)
On 16 April, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) will hold a virtual meeting to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on global systems to prevent and end violence against women and girls.
Data from around the world, including from UN Trust Fund grantees, indicate a surge in domestic violence during the pandemic. Isolation measures to slow the virus are separating women from the people and resources that support them, exacerbating violence against women.
Open to all UN Trust Fund stakeholders – including grantees, donors and UN partners – during the meeting we will hear directly from women’s rights organizations and civil society partners about the impact of COVID-19 on their organizations and beneficiaries. Many of the participating grantees will be small women’s rights and women-led organizations, supported by the UN Trust Fund. Discussions will focus on collective efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic to best support and protect women and girls.
Three UN Trust Fund grantee representatives will kick off the meeting to explain how their organizations are responding to the crisis:
- Meliha Sendic, President of the Center of Women's Rights, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Gaudence Mushimiyimana, co-founder and Executive Director of the Rwandan Organisation of Women with Disabilities (UNABU)
- Rashmi Singh, Programme Director of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, India.
Key points from the meeting will feed into the UN Trust Fund’s evolving response to the pandemic. This will ensure that grantees can best support women and girls at a heightened risk of violence around the world.
“Accompanying the crisis has been a spike in domestic violence reporting, at exactly the time that services, including rule of law, health and shelters, are being diverted to address the pandemic.” - from the UN Secretary-General's report “Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19"
As health, economic and security concerns increase around the world related to the COVID-19 pandemic, emerging data shows an increase of violence against women and girls.
The United Nations sees women’s organizations, such as those funded by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund), as essential in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it is calling for increased funding for women’s organizations needed during the crisis through the “expansion and capitalization” of mechanisms such as the UN Trust Fund.
“COVID-19 pandemic exposed the lack of our societies’ preparedness to respond to and deal with an existing, ongoing and persistent pandemic – violence against women and girls. Women’s organizations and their staff are essential workers, providing so much needed specialist services to survivors of violence where these services wouldn’t have been otherwise available. Our duty is to keep them safe and capacitate them to overcome this critical moment. Ensuring institutional sustainability of women’s organizations through investing in their core resources is key to maintaining the fundamental infrastructure that drives locally and globally the agenda of ending violence against women and girls”, says Aldijana Sisic, Chief of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women.
Increased violence against women
The work of the UN Trust Fund and its grantees to prevent and end violence against women and girls is critical more than ever. In many cities and communities, the emergency services and institutional responses are overwhelmed by the COVID-19 health crisis, and service providers have rapidly lost capacity to respond to the needs of survivors of violence. UN Trust Fund grantees are playing a critical role at the community level, and their sustained operation is vital to a comprehensive and successful pandemic response.
In response, the UN Trust Fund is mapping the impact of the crisis on its 144 grantees working around the world to better understand the challenges they face and strategies adopted in response. The grantee organizations are reporting that their beneficiaries are exposed to an increased risk of domestic violence during the pandemic, while services are experiencing increased workloads in response to the public health crisis. The very tactics to protect individuals from COVID-19, including social distancing, mandatory lockdowns and isolation in the home, intensify the risks of violence against women and girls.
Masa Pavlovic, Project Coordinator of the Mental Disability Rights Initiative in Serbia, which is implementing a UN Trust Fund-supported project with the organization FemPlatz, said, “We are certain that this situation and restrictive measures will have [a] very negative and long-lasting impact on our beneficiaries.”
Grantees are also anticipating delays and modifications to projects, which will directly impact beneficiaries. The completed mapping will enable the UN Trust Fund to assess the full breadth of the challenges COVID-19 presents to service providers as well as the impact on women and girls particularly at risk, including those living with disabilities.
Immediate and long-term needs
The UN Trust Fund is adjusting its operations and responding swiftly to the evolving crisis. Immediate action taken includes project reviews to enable quick reallocation of existing funds to enable grantees to respond efficiently to pressing challenges and safety of their staff, ensure institutional sustainability, manage potential organizational risks and make sure that women and girls receive essential support.
The UN Trust Fund also recognizes the anticipated long-term needs of its grantees to best serve women and girl survivors of violence. Through the establishment of a specific Ending Violence against Women COVID-19 Response Funding Window, it will support existing grantees with core resources to actively respond to the challenges created by the pandemic, prioritizing small women’s organizations. In addition, subject to increased resources, the UN Trust Fund aims to launch a global Call for Proposals for the new COVID-19 Crisis Response Window to fund projects specifically designed to support long-term interventions for women and girl survivors that are specific to the context of the pandemic.
UN Trust Fund grantees' support services to survivors essential more than ever during COVID-19 (posted 24 March 2020)
As the current COVID-19 global pandemic spreads through the world, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund), and its grantees, recognize the gender dimensions of the impact from the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes an increased burden of care for women, risk of increased levels of domestic violence and a decrease in the ability of service providers to respond to cases of violence. In this challenging time, the need to respond to the immediate and long-term consequences of the current crisis for women and girls is critical. The UN Trust Fund remains committed to its partners in the field who are essential in serving those who are too often left behind, and recognizes the critical role of women’s networks and women’s organizations.
Through mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on grantees of the UN Trust Fund, civil society organizations from India to the Democratic Republic of the Congo explained how they are actively adapting to the changing context and challenges presented during the outbreak.
“We are committed to ensuring our crisis services continue uninterrupted – our 24-hour hotline, and our crisis and rehabilitative services for burn survivors are accessible to those who require support. As an organization that works in providing crisis services to the most vulnerable, we are working round the clock to ensure that no woman is left behind even as we prioritize the health and safety of everyone”, said Rashmi Singh, Programme Director of UN Trust Fund grantee PCVC. In India, the UN Trust Fund supports the expansion of PCVC’s holistic support to women burn survivors including physical and psycho-social services to survivors in 10 districts. PCVC recognizes the needed continuity of such essential services to survivors, while also prioritizing the safety of their staff through the introduction of such measures such as phone follow up sessions and video calls. Singh went on to say, “There is worry that many burn survivors may slip through the cracks and not get the physical or psycho-social services they need. Given the gaps in the service eco-system, an outbreak like this has only reinforced the need for more coordinated working and capacity-building of all stakeholders.”
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Julienne Lusenge, Executive Director of the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC), a UN Trust Fund grantee, explained that, “this pandemic will increase the precariousness of women’s and girls’ situations and heightens their vulnerability, emphasizing gender inequalities”. The FFC’s project aims to prevent and reduce sexual violence against schoolgirls through education, training and collective advocacy. Due to the pandemic, schools are closed, and therefore activities are impacted.
“This will expose them to domestic violence, sexual violence, and all kinds of violence. […] We will continue to amplify the messages of the experts so that each person can better understand the seriousness of the situation at hand”, said Lusenge. “We are trying to adapt to this situation but there are looming unknowns. We don't know how the situation will develop in the DRC. […] We will continue to insist that it's not up to the woman to fight on her own. It's the man and the woman together, it's the whole family that has to fight this pandemic.”