Covid has brought a pandemic of violence against women

It's not just Covid we're up against, but a pandemic of violence against women
5 min read

Luay Shabaneh

09 December, 2020
Comment: A lack of data about violence suffered by women and girls is impacting our ability to tackle the problem, writes the UNFPA's Regional Director for Arab States, Luay Shabaneh.
Attention and funding have been diverted from desperately needed women's services [Getty]
As the world marks Human Rights Day 2020, efforts to end all forms of violence against women and girls continue, while the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to undermine much of what has been achieved so far.

UN Women's 16 Days of Activism Campaign (Orange the World Campaign) builds a figurative bridge from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, to Human Rights Day on December 10, and aims to raise awareness of the fact that gender-based violence against women and girls is one of the most pressing issues societies face globally. 

The campaign seeks to remind us that we need to step up our efforts to prevent and respond to it, and that gender-based violence is a crime and a human rights violation. This year's theme of the 16 Days Campaign is "Fund, respond, prevent, and collect!" and it highlights two key aspects of working to prevent gender-based violence. 

First, the "Fund!" appeal reminds us of the fact that during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, attention and funding have been diverted from desperately needed services for survivors of gender-based violence, such as shelters. During the Orange the World Campaign, UNFPA and partners reached out to governments, legislators, civil society and other actors in all Arab countries reminding them of how essential it is to not only ensure the continuation of these services, but also to expand them, given the alarming rise of reported cases of gender-based violence during the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, one in three women globally would experience violence by an intimate partner

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we have seen a rise in cases of domestic violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage both globally and in the Arab states region. 

This brings me to the second aspect of this year's theme, the plea to "collect!" referring to collecting data on gender-based violence. At first sight this might seem less urgent or even unnecessary. Why would we spend our time, energy and funds collecting data, when there are more immediately obvious actions needed to respond to gender-based violence, one might ask? What is the benefit of producing more data? 

Recently, I talked to a good friend of mine about the increase in calls to domestic violence helplines during the Covid-19 pandemic. While he had heard about the increase itself, he was shocked to find out that even before the pandemic, one in three women globally would experience violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence, and that for the Arab states region, the number was even slightly higher, at 37 per cent

Today, we lack sufficient data on the severity and prevalence of gender based violence in the Arab region. Reliable data at the national level is often scarce, and where it does exist it is often outdated. The data my friend was inquiring about is lacking, and that conversation very vividly exemplified something I was already aware of: the power of data should never be underestimated. Hearing about a problem in general terms will never lead to the same feeling of urgency in policymaking as being presented with concrete numbers. 

Read more: What to read on the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

But the numbers are only part of the story. Incorporating the voices of women and girls is also essential to getting a clear picture of the reality on the ground.

Recently, UNFPA issued a
report on the 'Evolution of Gender-based Violence and Sexual and Reproductive Health Services within the Syria Crisis Response', to gain a better understanding of what has worked in terms of responses to these issues in the region over the past three years. Evidence-based data collection is essential to all, including policy makers, donors and partners who work on addressing gender-based violence.

The UNFPA calls on all countries to keep investing in generating up-to-date, reliable and comparable data on the prevalence of gender-based violence, as well as the attitudes of men and women on the issue, the use of services, etc.

This is essential to improving services, programmes and policies that respond to and prevent violence against women and girls, for two reasons: Firstly, and this is a universal truth, national policy makers can only develop effective solutions to a problem if they first understand the exact problem itself. Secondly, as the conversation with my friend exemplifies, we need data to make people in positions of power realise the extent and urgency of the issue. 

Reliable data at the national level is often scarce, and where it does exist it is often outdated

While women and girls have been suffering gender based violence for centuries, Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation and increases the risks women and girls are facing by compounding existing gender inequalities. If violence against women and girls were a disease, we would surely have to call it a pandemic as well, given how widespread it is. Yet policymakers and politicians remain seemingly unaware of the horrifying extent of this form of violence. In addition, women are often denied the tools or social capital to describe what they might be experiencing as gender based violence. 

With this in mind, let us take this year's theme of the 16 Days of Activism Campaign to heart, and "fund, respond, prevent and collect!" in order to prioritise the rights, safety and well-being of women and girls around the world.

Luay Shabaneh is the Regional Director for Arab States in UNFPA. A native of Palestine, he has held a number of public service positions over the last two decades in the area of official statistics, programme management, and advocacy within the UN system.

Follow him on Twitter: @shabanehluay 

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