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Pandemic worsening gender-based violence

Says a UNFPA official

Published : 14 Dec 2020 10:26 PM | Updated : 15 Dec 2020 01:13 AM
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The pandemic is "exacerbating" the pre-existing gender-based violence (GBV) in the Asia-Pacific region and is "likely to deepen inequalities", UNFPA’s technical specialist Sujata Tuladhar says.

The pandemic is also limiting the GBV survivors’ ability to distance themselves from their abusers and accessing life-saving services, she said, calling for investments to address those challenges since GBV services and responses are still not considered as part of essential Covid-19 response in the region.

She highlighted several measures which she said ‘deemed necessary’ to control the spread and increasing risk of exposure to GBV for women and girls.

Sujata Tuladhar, Technical Specialist on Gender Based Violence, UNFPA Asia Pacific Regional Office, was speaking at the 13th session of the 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR10) being held virtually.

APCRSHR10, and Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) and CNS are co-hosting those online sessions with the last episode to be held on December 21.

Gender based violence continues to remain pervasive in Asia Pacific region. The percentage of women who experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of intimate partner over their lifetime ranges from 15% to 64%. Also 4% to 48% of women have experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12 months.

There is a wide recognition of the heightened risk of gender based violence for women and girls during the Covid19 pandemic and Asia Pacific does not remain any different.

Sujata Tuladhar said some of the strategies that UNFPA has been working on to improve the support to survivors of GBV are:- (i) strengthening the systems, and (ii) building on existing established systems of partnerships and collaborations for delivery of essential and lifesaving GBV response remains our key priority.

“Strengthening the capacities of the frontline service providers, governments and partners to adapt the GBV response services in the restricted context of Covid19 is another area of investment,” she said.

“We have also been continuing our advocacy with governments and partners to ensure that the GBV services are classified as essential and lifesaving services in the context of Covid 19. This also means continued investment and funding to make GBV response services accessible and available.”

Key areas of intervention

In the area of prevention and risk mitigation, many of the evidence based strategies that are effective in the prevention of violence against women are difficult to operationalise in the context of Covid-19, she said.

But there are some promising adaptations. In particular, community engagement and mobilization programs which are really hard to implement with restrictions on movement, are now being adapted to digital movement.

“For example, we are seeing in the region strong partnerships with media and a variety of digital tools such as community based radios and televisions were being made accessible.”

Social media, even SMS, text messages to raise visibility of violence against women, challenge the stereotypes and share information about existing services, like in Philippines.

Where these are not possible, countries are adapting to spreading the messages through loudspeakers or in moving vehicles. We are also seeing these GBV messages being included in emergency cards that are being provided to communities with a variety of Covid related information, like in the Pacific.

“We are also seeing dedicated attention to quarantine sites where several targeted interventions are being designed to share information to the quarantine site residents on GBV services,” she said.

In some areas we are seeing early examples of digital delivery of life skills and comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that challenge harmful gender norms.

In a few other partnerships with faith based leaders, community leaders are also being explored to challenge harmful gender norms and promote more equitable norms during Covid19.

We have examples from Pakistan, Mongolia, Indonesia and few other countries where tele-counselling modalities have become very commonplace.

In Nepal trained community based psychosocial workers who have been the first time responders for years have now been equipped with cell phone credits, so that they can continue to reach out to and respond to women at risk in their communities, telephonically.

Few countries are also exploring the concept of creating shelters through partnerships with Airbnb, hotels or university dorms that make rooms available for GBV survivors in a safe way.

In several countries we are also seeing innovation in terms of mobile safety apps and other online resources that connect survivors with service providers.

Some applications are also providing safety planning options for women when they are able to safely leave the situation of abuse.

One such example is a mobile app ‘Her Voice’ that was recently launched in the Philippines. We have also seen support being channelled to women in quarantine centres as another way of accessing those in need.

In many countries the dignity kits, which include basic survival materials as well as GBV service information, are being distributed and some are being adapted to specific needs of women with disabilities or elderly women, or transgender women in various contexts in our region.

“We are also seeing stronger partnerships with community based health workers like midwives and female health workers who are being further supported to safely identify cases of GBV, provide first line support and facilitate referrals.”

A case in point is in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where midwives sit in women friendly spaces and provide some of their support and that has allowed the women from these spaces to remain open even with Covid related restrictions.

With many of the capacity building initiatives, having moved to virtual, it has been quite a realization that this modality can work even for very specific GBV related areas- like case management and training for hotline operators - and with this modality we are able to reach more participants in further off areas and make these trainings available for no cost, thus bridging any financial or geographical barriers that we may have had in the past.

“Despite all this, we are still in the midst of the pandemic and several challenges remain. In most contexts, GBV services and responses are still not considered as part of essential Covid response,” she said.

“So advocacy and partnership around this is still needed. We are still not seeing the level of investment and funding that is needed to address the magnitude of the issue.”

“Remote delivery of GBV services is continuing to be a challenge. We need to prioritise continued capacity building and adaptation of tools and guidelines including support to the already overwhelmed and under resourced frontline service providers.

“We are also seeing new forms of violence and new means of perpetrating violence which means we need to evolve in the way we provide services.

“We are also seeing the need to evolve the methodologies for GBV data collection that reflects the challenges of Covid related restrictions.

“Finally, the investment in adapting evidence based approaches to GBV prevention in Covid19 context is essential,” the UNFA expert said.

“While we talk about all these potentially promising practices, how do we sustain them because Covid19 continues to remain a challenge for a while, that remains another concern. Overall there is a looming challenge that the progress made in the region in addressing GBV over the last several years may be compromised and face potential backlash.”

She, however, said that Covid19 “provides us an opportunity to further evolve and innovate our approaches to ensure long term transformative changes to ending violence against women.”