November marks the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. But after the year we’ve had, we’re going to need to dedicate way more than 16 days to the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence.
Every November, the international community kicks off its annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign to call attention to the violence women and girls around the world experience on a daily basis. While every year it is gut wrenching to see the numbers and read how many women and girls have been killed, hurt or discriminated against, this year, the outlook is especially grim.
When a Crisis Hits, Violence Against Women Increases
Reports of violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic have increased around the world, from the UK, France and China, to the United States, as many women and girls were locked down in their homes with their abusers, isolated from support networks and services.
Women and girls that are caught up in conflicts and protracted crises are especially at risk. A recent analysis found that, over the past 25 years, Afghanistan has experienced the highest increase in reports of domestic violence (46 percent) among conflict-affected states, followed by Ethiopia (40 percent) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (37 percent). The ten countries with the highest child marriage prevalence rates are classified as either fragile or extremely fragile.
The ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence (GBV) has also been rising significantly in refugee camps since the start of COVID-19. In a recent analysis by the International Rescue Committee, 73 percent of women living in the most underfunded and forgotten crisis settings reported an increase in domestic violence, 51 percent cited sexual violence and 32 percent observed a growth in the levels of early and forced marriage since the start of COVID-19.
While rising reports may also be the result of increased awareness that domestic violence is a rights violation, it is also clear from prevalence studies that conflict exacerbates the overall violence that women and girls experience.
Whenever a crisis hits, we know violence against women increases. Yet the response from the international community and donors remains inadequate at best. Despite the many speeches on the need to prioritize the safety of women and girls, action falls notoriously short.
In 2018, only 0.12 percent of all humanitarian funding went toward programming to prevent and respond to GBV, and as of October 2020, only 0.5 percent of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 was dedicated to GBV prevention and response. Less than 1 percent of funding doesn’t quite say “priority.”
Tried and Tested Strategies Can Make the World Safer for Women
While the sheer magnitude of the problem may seem overwhelming, there are very tangible things that can be done to help turn the tide. There are tried and tested strategies to make refugee camps safer places for women and girls as well as provide care and support to survivors.
Many lifesaving services, like female-only safe spaces, had to initially close at the start of the pandemic. Many have now been able to reopen or adapt by providing digital support services, thanks in a large part to the ingenuity of local women-led organizations.
However, many local organizations and other front-line responders have seen funding for these lifesaving services dry up. Unless refugee women and girls themselves are at the table when decisions are made, their priorities for safety and wellbeing will continue to be marginalized.
Turning political rhetoric into funded actions requires us to hold governments and agencies accountable for their commitments on gender equality. Governments and UN agencies need to be more transparent about how aid money is being spent to provide a clear picture of how much money is going toward supporting the safety, resilience and wellbeing of women and girls; including those facing intersectional discrimination on the basis of age, sexuality or ethnicity.
Individuals can support this by calling this issue to the attention of politicians and decision makers. With 16 days comes plenty of opportunities to sign up for petitions, support campaigns like the UN’s Unite Campaign or to approach your local elected officials. You can also donate to organizations that work with local women-led organizations to tackle the root cause of violence—gender inequality—and not just the symptoms.
There are also more hands-on ways to get involved in your community, such as volunteering for local and national crisis hotlines or providing items to women’s shelters based on actual needs such as dental hygiene products, menstrual products, undergarments or cell phones. Reach out to shelters within your community to find out how you can best support them with whatever time and resources you may be able to spare.
The international community should use the 16 Days of Activism to restate commitments to tackling GBV in this time of global crisis and political upheaval. This must include concrete actions to fund responses for women and girls caught up in conflict and crises. COVID-19 is a disease of the connected world that reinforces the need for greater international cooperation to solve problems.
If we all truly prioritize gender equality in this fight to end violence, then we will soon no longer need 16 days to draw attention to one of the most debilitating experiences one can face, but rather, we can further focus on building societies where women are viewed as both equals and vital to stability and growth.
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