Updated: Jan 17, 2021
In recognition of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Equanimity Foundation (EQF) reflects on the global crisis of violence against women and girls. In 2020, following the emergence of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, rates of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) have dramatically increased. A 2020 UN Women report indicated that 243 million women and girls experienced GBV by an intimate partner in the previous twelve months. The effects of the rise in GBV have been observed globally. In Colombia, for example, the Ministry of Health reported a 40% increase in cases of GBV between January and September of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In the United Kingdom, the murders of women more than doubled in March and April. In India, there is significant pressure on girls and parents to reconsider child marriage as economic resources become scarce. Further, the trend in working remotely from home has resulted in an increase in cyberbullying, sexual harassment, and technology-enabled violence. Consequently, addressing the devastating crisis of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is complicated by the need to combat the deadly spread of COVID-19.
Violence against women and girls is a global epidemic with more than one in three women experiencing physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The term GBV is used to describe acts of physical and sexual violence directed at an individual based on their gender. GBV is rooted in gender inequality, patriarchal power structures, toxic cultural norms, and intergenerational transmission of violence. While boys and men experience sexual and physical violence, girls are disproportionately affected and targeted. For example, in terms of murders of women, 38% are committed by intimate partners worldwide.
Key causes of GBV include stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, patriarchal societal structures, and the normalization of violence as a healthy and acceptable means to settle disagreements or enforce gender power dynamics. The perception that violence is a standard for addressing conflict contributes to GBV because observation of violence against women and girls contributes to boys’ social learning. This cements the concept that violence against women is normal, and the social learning of violence in youth relates to violence perpetrated as an adult.
The stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity contribute to GBV and gender inequality at-large. Rigid gender roles and strict assumptions about masculinity and femininity influence the expectation of subservience in women and girls and dominance in men and boys. Further, the attitude that “boys will be boys”, or the normalization of rape culture, socially permits sexual harassment and violence against girls and women. The association of masculinity with toughness and violence establishes the acceptability of boys behaving violently. The association of femininity with submissiveness and chastity discourages girls and women from both resisting physical and sexual violence, reporting sexual violence, and seeking help. Patriarchal societal structures further endow men with authority and control over their female family members, often resulting in the use of physical and sexual violence to exert control over girls and women.
Emerging data reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures have led to a rise in GBV across the world. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, domestic violence hotlines have been experiencing record-highs in call rates. Globally, public health safety measures aim to lower rates of infection by restricting movement. Unfortunately, these efforts often isolate victims of GBV, complicating their access to aid and confining them with abusers. Factors such as unemployment, economic instability, and stress contribute to rising rates of violence against women and girls as perpetrators attempt to exert their control and dominance in a rapidly changing world.
Further, social services have been redirected to address the global pandemic, limiting their accessibility to victims of GBV. The pandemic creates additional barriers to accessing social services like counseling, legal resources, and emergency shelter. This further isolates victims of GBV, since the removal of critical assistance, can impact women’s mental and emotional health.
GBV is a violation of human rights and acts as a barrier to gender equality globally. UNESCO estimates that every year approximately 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school. In some countries, more girls experience sexual violence than become literate. As countries across the world grapple with GBV and COVID-19, it is imperative to advocate for the rights and safety of women and girls globally.
International Efforts to Combat GBV
While it is difficult to calculate the magnitude of GBV globally, communities, groups, and governments have implemented various strategies to combat violence against women in different parts of the world. Following are certain considerations that determine the success of policy interventions:
It is important to acknowledge the local context and culture when designing interventions to ensure effectiveness and long-term sustainability. While general approaches might lead to short-term alleviation of GBV, they are very rarely an effective solution;
GBV is steeped in community norms that dictate relationships, gender dynamics, and patriarchal values, especially in developing countries with weaker institutions. Community members must be involved in the design and enforcement of checks and laws that address GBV; and,
In many parts of the world, the cost of GBV is not communicated well enough to highlight the severity of the issue. Moreover, punishment for crimes against women and girls may be lax or unenforced, as evidenced by low conviction rates. Information campaigns must be targeted to specific groups that have been identified as the most vulnerable.
Several countries around the world have successfully developed interventions to combat GBV by identifying specific problems and designing unique solutions to address them. In India, programs like Action for Equality have designed their interventions around teenaged-boys to break regressive community stereotypes about gender. As part of this grassroots intervention, thousands of boys are being delivered specific curricula designed around gender-based violence, disrupting gender norms.
Given the relationship between religion and gender-discrimination, many countries have also identified religious leaders and community elders as a vehicle to deliver key-messaging against GBV. In countries like Kenya and Guinea Bissau, religious leaders are collaborating with medical practitioners to empower communities against practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It has been observed that victims of GBV often feel hesitant to report crimes due to a lack of faith in institutions, the overrepresentation of male police officers, or the inability to communicate openly without the fear of further violence and stigma. Observing these challenges, a unique intervention coming out of India is the creation of Nari Adalats or ‘Women’s Court’ by the Indian government. It is an Alternate Dispute Resolution platform designed to function largely in rural India, where a panel of female mediators facilitate amicable discussions between both parties (victim and alleged perpetrator) along with family members and other key individuals in the relationship. The hearings are followed by fact-finding missions that lead to the resolution of issues and regular follow-ups.
These are just a few examples of successful interventions and tools being deployed around the world that have been able to target specific issues related to GBV. One commonality is the focus on grassroots action and the involvement of community members. GBV must be tackled with creative solutions that go beyond the threat of state-sanctioned punishment. Equanimity Foundation promotes ending gender-based violence worldwide. By delivering food assistance, shelter, and humanitarian aid to communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, we aim to provide women alternatives so they do not have to suffer in adverse conditions. EQF stays true to its mission of sustainable development and providing peace and security to all, particularly to women disproportionately affected by GBV.