The Future is Equal

30 years and counting: Why COVID-19 provides an opportunity to act decisively on eliminating GBV

Gender-based violence has been prevalent before we entered the Covid-19 pandemic that shook all our lives. Before the pandemic, in 2018, 245 million women and girls aged 15 and over were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner. 245 million women and girls – means that the prevalence of GBV was higher than the prevalence of Covid-19 in the last 12 months. 

As more people moved to online spaces, so did violence, bullying and harassment. Online spaces became unsafe.  

At the onset of the pandemic, activists and frontline workers sounded the alarm on the surge in scope, and scale, of GBV. Domestic and gender-based violence helplines recorded an increase in the number of calls from survivors who were seeking help. In ten countries including, Argentina, Colombia, Tunisia, China, Somalia, South Africa, UK, Cyprus, Italy, and Malaysia the surge in the number of calls to GBV/domestic violence helplines showed a percentage increase of between 25% -111%.  

Despite this knowledge, there has been a meagre investment to tackle GBV. Women’s rights organisations at the forefront of responding to these cases are hugely affected by budget cuts and funding. Data collections on GBV is equally wanting. Whilst there are even publicly accessible registries that list the name of every dog in Zürich, Switzerland, data on gender-based violence is still not being collected systemically. Despite this being the premiss for an adequate response (including funding) to the problem. 

This year marks 30 years of 16 Days of activism against GBV since its inception by activists at the inaugural Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. This annual commemoration kicks off every November 25th to December 10th and is used to create awareness about GBV worldwide. This year’s commemoration provides an opportunity for activists, donors, governments, and individuals to reflect on the impact the pandemic has had on GBV and purpose to act and end GBV.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that governments can take extraordinary measures to protect their citizens and respond to deadly crises when spurred to action. We need to see more efforts to address GBV included in the COVID-19 response and recovery plans. We sure need to be deliberate about making the world safe for women, girls, and LGBTQI+ people. Let’s act now! 

Here are five brilliant questions you asked about our recent report and our work on gender rights and Justice. 

1. What do you mean when you talk about gender-based violence? 

Gender-based violence is any act of physical, psychological, sexual, or economic violence directed against a person, or a group based on their gender, sex or non-conformity to gender norms and stereotypes. It does not only affect women and girls but can be directed at anyone based on these criteria. Often trans and non-binary people are affected by GBV, while at the same time this is also often overlooked. 

2. Are you saying that we shouldn’t focus on the Covid-19 pandemic but on the GBV pandemic instead? 

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on all our lives. This global health emergency needs decisive action and investments. Everybody regardless of where they are in the world need to have access to safe and effective vaccines. There is no question that the world needs to act now to stop the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, as our report shows, gender-based violence is affecting hundreds of millions of people with devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of the survivors, with grave consequences that often also lead to death. This is a severe pandemic in numbers and impact that needs to be tackled right now. We don’t have another 30 years to wait until everyone can live save and free of violence. This is urgent too! 

3. GBV has always been there, how would you be able to change it and if it is possible, why is nobody doing it?  

Gender-based violence is not the result of forces of nature! It is the result of patriarchal structures and unequal power distribution. The good news is we can tackle it and bring gender-based violence to a halt! 

In the 30 years since the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence started we are still not close to eliminating the violence, but instead have witnessed a surge during the pandemic showing that this is deeply rooted in patriarchal structures and power-imbalances that systemically exclude women and LGBTQI people from decision making. 

If we are serious about ending gender-based violence, we need to change harmful social norms – that means everyone must get involved. It means that governments must invest in the prevention and response to GBV. It also means that more and better gender-disaggregated data must be collected to be able to adequately respond to the GBV pandemic. Every response to the Covid-19 pandemic needs to include efforts to achieving gender justice. A recovery from Covid-19 is possible if gender just policies and measures were implemented. Only then are we then able to address GBV once and for all. 

4. What is Oxfam doing to end GBV? 

Oxfam has prioritised to fight for gender justice and against any form of violence against women (including trans women) and girls, and LGBTQIA+ people. We believe we cannot have a just society unless women (including trans women) and girls, and LGBTQIA+ people have full agency over their lives. We work within our programmes, influencing and operations to challenge harmful social norms and belief systems, including through gender transformative education and where they impact poor women the most. Oxfam advocates for policies and practice that protect the equal rights of women, girls, and all those who suffer discrimination based on gender or sex and value and recognise women’s leadership in different spheres of life. We work with over 750 partners in 40 countries to achieve this, by exposing the patriarchal practices that prevent women from realising their rights.  

5. How is Oxfam holding itself accountable? 

We fully acknowledge our own history in failing to support and protect the survivors of GBV and not holding ourselves accountable for violence perpetrated by former staff. We have pledged to address these failings and to invite external scrutiny of our policies and procedures going forward. We have increased staff and funding for safeguarding, set up a global database for references to make it harder for wrongdoers to work in the sector, and appointed an independent commission to review our culture and practices to make further improvements. Through our campaigns, programming, and research, we hope to honour all survivors and address the harms we have caused.    

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