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Gender and COVID-19: Could Coronavirus Undo Progress on Australia’s Gains in Ending Violence Against Women and Girls?

May 20, 2020

This is part one in a three-part gender and COVID-19 blog series.

In recent weeks and months, we have watched the coronavirus pandemic sweep the globe and now reach the Pacific. While both women and men are susceptible to this virus, isolation and community lock downs create gender-specific challenges, particularly a heightened risk of domestic violence. The family home can be a dangerous place for women – one in three women face sexual and physical abuse and much of this violence is perpetrated by their partners. Last year, a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that of the 87,000 women intentionally killed around the world in 2017, more than half were killed by their husbands, boyfriends or family member – an average of 137 women every day.

Enforced lockdowns – a lethal ingredient for domestic violence

The ingredients for a spike in domestic violence are clear. Enforced lock downs and quarantines potentially create a lethal situation at home which jeopardises women’s safety. Violence against women is linked to an increase in household stressors – having family members together without respite for days on end, the financial impact of job losses, and increased levels of social stress related to the endless bad news about the virus. All build to a volatile environment for more violence to occur.  There have also been reports of men using the virus as a way of exerting coercive control over their wives and girlfriends – keeping them isolated or withholding essential supplies like hand sanitiser. This controlling behaviour is an early warning sign for physical violence, and ensuring women are safe in isolation is an essential first step towards stopping the escalation of violence.

Australia has invested significantly in aid to the Pacific and South East Asia- two regions where violence against women is already at endemic levels. In the Pacific, most countries have much higher rates of violence against women, including domestic violence, than the global average. In countries like Timor Leste, Laos and Cambodia, the combination of a chronic lack of services, existing conflict, and high levels of gender violence mean that women and girls in domestic lock down are in grave danger.

What this can mean for Australia’s international investments on ending violence

There is an opportunity now, as aid programmes pivot to meet the COVID-19 threat, to ensure the gains Australia has made in responding to the needs of women and girls are not lost during the pandemic. DFAT’s Gender Equality Strategy targets violence against women and girls as one of the key pillars of its international assistance. Over the past decade, Australian regional investment has made significant inroads into domestic violence policy and services.  Last year’s evaluation of Australia’s development assistance to end violence against women and girls found that Australia is a leading donor in the space, with over $300 million invested to improve policies and legislation, increase women’s access to justice, and build private and community sector expertise. Australia’s support for service provision through agencies such Fiji’s Women’s Crisis Centre and Femili PNG was found to be a key strength that could be replicated in countries and rural and remote areas where services are scarce.

Holding onto the gains

COVID-19 has the potential to have a particularly devastating impact in the Pacific, where quality health services are limited, laboratory equipment is scarce, and some economies are heavily reliant on tourism. Government responses are rightly focused on the health response and following international guidelines, so stay at home controls are already being implemented in many Pacific nations. However, these measures result in limiting women’s access to vital services in addressing violence, access to sexual and reproductive health services, and in repositioning domestic funding to fight the virus, away from hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, legal aid, and protection services.

Given the limited number of domestic violence services providers and the high prevalence of violence in the Pacific, the aid programme’s repositioning of health and other support has to consider measures to respond to and prevent violence. Women and girls first and foremost need the ongoing community and remote provision of frontline services.  This includes services to assist with case management, safety planning, housing options, health system referrals and legal assistance.

Three steps to protect the gains

For the Australian government, ensuring the gains of their world leading VAWG programming are not lost means:

1. Cordoning and increasing long term violence funding directly to essential violence response service and women’s rights organisations. These are consistently and chronically underfunded in emergency responses and in domestic budgets, and we cannot afford to let this continue. These services and organisations have a lived understanding of the needs of women on the ground and will provide culturally appropriate prevention and response to coronavirus and domestic violence. They will face a surge in needs and may at this time provide the only avenue women have to access information, resources and safe housing. Providing additional support to respond to the needs of remote service provision, including providing disability-responsive communication methods, is also vital in maintaining accessibility. And Australia can be partnering with these agencies to assist in their data and monitoring systems, as a way of building an evidence base of good practice in gender-based violence prevention and response during pandemics.

2. Ensuring partners build response plans to violence against women as an essential step in health sector response planning. Health facilities are vital referral avenues for women and children escaping domestic violence, and telehealth or local health clinics services need to adopt protocols to provide localised, up to date referral information on existing services for survivors.  Training for health staff in gender-based violence and appropriate violence response can be built into response capacity building. Health clinics can also be linked to safe, supported housing options for women so that where positive test results force women to stay home, they are able to choose to do so in a place away from their abuser.

3. Taking VAWG prevention and response measures across emergency sectors seriously. Humanitarian partners across sectors must explain how they will meet international GBV standards in their response planning, including in the support for their own staff and volunteers. This work takes targeted funding, and is consistently underfunded in humanitarian response, especially in sectors like water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) which are essential now in combatting coronavirus. And funding needed to support this work has to be prioritised as lifesaving, which sadly and inevitably it is.

Concluding thoughts

As of today, coronavirus has now infected people on six of the Pacific Island nations, with a further five declaring states of emergencies. There is a small window now for Australia to act in this region while movement restrictions are in place – at the very least, before the virus health burden exponentially increases and further compounds the trigger factors for violence against women and girls. While these thoughts are specifically on the Pacific, violence against women, including domestic violence, is already a global disaster affecting on average one out of every three women. Women everywhere are now facing the twin disasters of violence and the pandemic.  Australia’s leadership in the region demands a response that takes both into account.

If you are experiencing DFV or have concerns for a friend or family member, please contact a local service provider:

This blog also appears on the Governance and Development Soapbox.

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