Twenty-five years after the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women and the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, the march towards rights, justice and choices for women and girls in all their diversities, continues. The gradual, yet incremental, progress made in these years in terms of tackling gender discrimination and inequality across different spheres reminds us that change on many of these complex social change processes, though intractable, is possible. As we renew our commitments to these landmark international agreements, and begin the decade of action for the Sustainable Development Goals or the SDGs, we also pause to recognise the distance that is yet to be covered to end gender-based violence.
Covid-19 has reminded us of how challenging the path to securing equality and ending gender-based violence (GBV) is, with the alarming signs of a potential reversal of hard-earned gains made in the last few decades. As with humanitarian situations, the Covid-19 crisis is exacting a heavy toll on women and girls, and other disadvantaged groups across the globe, and has contributed to an increased risk of GBV.
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Gender-based violence and Covid-19
Data on prevalence of GBV: Global estimates indicate that on an average one in every three women has experienced physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Data in India also reveal a similar statistic with 30 per cent women reporting the experience of physical or sexual violence (National Family Health Survey-NFHS-4, 2015-16). The figure increases for ever-married women to 35 per cent. The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2019 report indicates a 7.3 per cent increase in crimes against women between 2018 and 19 in India.
Renewed commitment for addressing GBV in the context of Covid-19: The imperative for action to end GBV has always been urgent and gains traction in the current crisis. Restricted mobility, increased time at home with the perpetrator, lack of social connectivity, increased stress and limited access to essential services are some of the factors that increase the risk of violence for women and girls who are already vulnerable to violence and abuse.
In recognition of the shadow pandemic of GBV, the UN Secretary General has, from the very early days of the crisis, called for action by all governments and non-State actors to ensure that Covid-19 response plans integrate GBV prevention and response. The UNSG Office also issued the UN political engagement strategy on GBV and Covid-19 that provides a guiding framework for action, based on four pillars: Fund, Respond, Prevent and Collect data on GBV. This framework also inspired the theme for this year’s 16 days of activism campaign, which calls for collective commitment to ‘Orange the World! Fund, Respond, Prevent and Collect’. It draws our attention to share the responsibility. Show solidarity. And re-commit to collective actions.
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UN India action
The UN in India is supporting action and advocacy across all pillars of the Secretary-General’s Strategy for addressing GBV. From the onset of the crisis, the UN agencies reprogrammed resources to contribute to the national response to Covid-19, as well as to address the potential increase in the risk of GBV. This resulted in a fivefold increase in the investments across agencies for supporting work on GBV.
The UN’s resources, however, can only support and enhance existing mechanisms or suggest innovations that may be taken to scale through state investments. The need of the hour is increased government investment for prevention and response to GBV, through a package of minimum essential services. This requires budget allocations in sectors that play a critical role in addressing GBV and in civil society organisations, especially women’s rights organisations that provide much needed local-level support to GBV survivors or those vulnerable to the risk of GBV. Dedicated budgets and close monitoring to ensure achievement of outputs will help drive and sustain action for addressing GBV.
On the prevention front, the UN agencies have worked extensively with women’s collectives to build awareness on rights and entitlements, to counter power structures and to address social norms that normalise violence against women and girls. As a strategy for primary prevention, the UN’s efforts have been to engage with young people in schools and community settings with gender sensitive life-skills education that focus on preventing GBV and building individual and collective rejection of GBV from an early age. Potential opportunities for deeper engagement on preventing GBV lie with community-level institutions such as Panchayats, urban local bodies, and platforms that promote livelihood opportunities at scale. Examples of these are national and state livelihood missions that organise community members around common areas of interest. They can play a role in transforming the imbalances in the distribution of power and resources in the family, community, and worksites.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the UN has supported capacity building of service providers from One Stop Centres, Family Counselling Centres and special cells for women, and for health personnel, to ensure continuity of essential services for responding to GBV. The response to GBV is also integrated in the UN’s initiatives for economic resilience-building, through engagement with representatives from medium and small-scale enterprises and civil society organisations. The training programmes and outreach efforts have supported service providers in their critical role of ensuring continuity of GBV response services in the middle of the crisis.
Collection of data and evidence on GBV is crucial to monitor progress and identify gaps, as it provides a strong impetus for action. The UN has long supported the inclusion of GBV as an area of inquiry in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), and supported evidence-building on the availability and accessibility of services, as well as on community-level norms and attitudes related to GBV. These interventions are meant to inform legislation and policies, strengthen services and effective community mobilisation. Data and evidence gathered on the gender impact of Covid-19 will add value to the response efforts. To this effect, the UN is working closely with select state governments to collect meaningful data on the availability and accessibility of services, and to understand the challenges and gaps from the service provider’s perspective.
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Build back better for a just and equal tomorrow
As we learn to co-exist with the coronavirus, and move towards a new normal, we have the opportunity to build back better — be inclusive, imaginative and just. We need to push towards the extra mile, surpass the incremental and slow progress and achieve a more forward-looking and transformative change.
In marking the 16 Days of Activism against GBV this year in the middle of the crisis, we add our voice to the global call for renewed action from all State and non-State actors to:
- Integrate GBV prevention and response in the Covid-19 strategy by including funding for a minimum package of essential services in Covid-19 fiscal stimulus plans.
- Enable funding for civil society organisations, especially women’s rights organisations working to address.
- Institute a costed national action plan to address GBV, based on the policy of zero tolerance for such crimes.
- Initiate a nation-wide social and behavioral change communication campaign against GBV, drawing on lessons of the campaign against stigma and discrimination against Covid-19.
- Systematically collect data and evidence for improvement of GBV services and programs across states.
Argentina Matavel Piccin is UNFPA Representative India and Country Director Bhutan. Susan Ferguson is Country Representative, UN Women India. Views are personal.