United Nations Announces That Violence Against Women Is a Global Public Health Emergency

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Photo courtesy of nytimes.com

During the Day for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence, UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted that it is time to redouble efforts and achieve the elimination of violence against women by 2030.

“Violence against women and girls continues to be the most pervasive and pressing human rights issue in the world today,” Guterres said in a video posted on his Twitter account. “It is both an abhorrent crime and a public health emergency, with far-reaching consequences for millions of women and girls in every corner of the globe.”

The latest figures from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) confirm that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, levels of violence against women and girls have increased. In 13 countries, nearly half of women reported that they or a woman they knew began experiencing gender-based violence during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of women reported that domestic conflicts had become more frequent. A similar proportion said they felt less safe at home.

Violence against women is not inevitable, Guterres noted. The right policies and programs work. That means comprehensive, long-term strategies that address the root causes of violence, protect the rights of women and girls, and promote strong, autonomous women’s rights movements.

The Secretary thus announced the launch of the Spotlight Initiative, in partnership with the European Union, where last year alone, partner countries saw a 22% increase in the prosecution of perpetrators. Similarly, and thanks to the initiative, 84 laws and policies were passed or strengthened.  And more than 650,000 women and girls were able to access gender-based violence services, despite pandemic-related restrictions.

What the United Nations calls “a shadow pandemic” affects around 245 million women and girls over the age of 15 worldwide who are victims of sexual and physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the past 12 months. Similarly, thanks to COVID-19, the study found that most women have felt that safety, either inside or outside the home, has eroded.

The study and the organization suggest the need for at least five concrete actions:

  1. Put women at the center of responses, including policy solutions, to ensure that women’s voices, needs, and rights are reflected in pandemic responses, recovery, planning, and decision-making, for example, through their equal representation in COVID-19 working groups. Globally, women still represent less than a quarter (24%) of COVID-19 working group members. States can address this gap by involving women’s organizations in recovery plans and long-term solutions to address the increase in violence against women and girls during COVID-19. 
  2. Allocate additional resources and include evidence-based measures to address violence against women and girls in COVID 19 recovery and response plans through holistic, multi-sectoral measures fully integrated into national and local policies. These should not be seen as emergency, short-term, or stop-gap initiatives but as measures that will last as long as necessary to address the long-term impacts of the pandemic.
  3. Strengthen services for women experiencing violence, including where COVID-19 has increased existing risk factors and vulnerabilities. Since the pandemic’s onset, efforts to strengthen services, including shelters, hotlines, reporting mechanisms, psychosocial support, and police and justice responses to address impunity, should be maintained as a priority for recovery plans. Identified gaps must be addressed so that all women and girls are aware of and can access available quality services.
  4. Invest in medium- and long-term prevention efforts to end violence against women and girls that address gender norms, root causes, and risk factors, especially those exacerbated by COVID-19. Prevention initiatives may include awareness-raising and messaging to influence social norms through the media, the development of targeted curricula in formal and informal education systems, and providing economic and livelihood support to women and households.
  5. Ensure regular collection of gender statistics and sex-disaggregated data, including measuring the impacts of COVID-19 and short- and long-term violence against women and girls, to inform responses. This includes resuming the collection of data from the national prevalence survey on violence against women and strengthening administrative data systems to assess the needs and capacity of services to respond to increased demand in the context of COVID-19. Ensure that data capture intersectionality and underserved groups, such as women aged 50 and older. To this end, investing more in gender data is paramount.