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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 5/24/20

Rise in gender-based violence during COVID-19 warrants a gendered response

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End all sexual and other forms of gender-based violence
End all sexual and other forms of gender-based violence
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Preventing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (SGBV) before it happens and meeting the needs of all survivors should always be a priority - but it becomes even more of a compelling priority during pandemics and other emergencies. Such crisis situations might exacerbate already existing risks of SGBV. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has forced upon us a reality check on progress (or lack of it) made on the gendered responses to end SGBV.

Confinement is expected to increase risks of intimate partner violence as well as reduce access to regular lifesaving SGBV services, said Dr Chivorn Var, Executive Director of Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) and Convener of 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR10). In China during the pandemic, the number of domestic violence complaints to the local police station tripled. In India during the lockdown, the number of domestic violence complaints almost doubled.

"The Pacific island countries have some of the highest recorded rates of SGBV with nearly 2 out of 3 (67%) women experiencing sexual or physical violence by a partner. The violence is recurrent and severe and impacts women, girls, children, families, and communities at large. While there are few very good crisis support services for survivors of SGBV, they are generally confined to the capital cities and are not always available in rural and remote areas" said Abigail Erikson, Ending Violence Against Women Programme Specialist, UN Women, Fiji Multi-Country Office.

"The public health measures taken to tackle COVID-19 such as, physical distancing and lockdown to confine people within homes - have added fuel to fire. There has been an increase in the calls to the national helpline numbers with 50% of the women reporting a correlation between violence and some of the COVID-19 containment measures. Service providers have reported that SGBV survivors who are already receiving support services are experiencing escalating violence that is more severe and more frequent" added Erikson.

Intimate partner violence in Cambodia

Dr Chivorn Var shared that "intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence faced by Cambodian women. 20% of Cambodian women have reported physical or sexual violence and 32% of women have ever experienced emotional violence by an intimate partner. The health consequences of such violence are devastating, and 66% of intimate partner violence survivors reported adverse physical and mental health consequences. A Cambodian national survey reveals that sexual abuse before age 18 is also an urgent concern. The common perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence against women have been identified as husbands, siblings, relatives, neighbours, friends, and intimate partners."

In Cambodia, schools and most businesses are closed due to COVID-19 but it is not mandatory to stay home. There does not seem to be any noticeable increase in the cases of SGBV due to the pandemic. But some organizations that were providing shelter homes for violence survivors have closed this service for those who are not in life threatening situations. "But it does not mean that the problem [of SGBV] does not happen in the communities and in the families" pointed out Dr Var.

Sexual and gender-based violence exacerbated in Tonga

"In Tonga more than 80% cases of sexual violence, including girl child sexual abuse cases as well as rape and incest cases, happen within the homes. 25% Tongan women have experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. But majority of the support and response services - like legal aid service, safe houses or shelter homes, counselling services, sexual and reproductive health services - for survivors of SGBV are centred in the main island. Women and children living in the 5 outer Tongan islands do not have direct access to all of these services" said Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Director of Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC), Tonga.

There has been an exacerbation of SGBV on women and girls in Tonga due to the pandemic. Typically, in a month, WCCC gets 20-24 new SGBV cases. But in the 15 days period of lockdown alone they had 20 cases. A high number of cases were reported to the police as well.

Although the suddenness of COVID-19 created a sense of panic, but the response was quick too. The online counselling services of WCCC were ramped up fast. All counsellors were given mobile phones and underwent a fast and rigid training on how to provide services in a woman's home setting during lockdown period while maintaining confidentiality and ethics. This was no easy task as a typical Tonga home usually consists of at least 8 or 10 family members, said Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki.

She added that online social media platforms, such as Facebook, were also used to communicate with the women. Police support was taken to help the women - who walked out of their homes to escape violence - reach the support centres, without being turned back at the border checkpoints and without having to face the humiliation of narrating their story at every checkpoint.

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