COVID-19: Bringing the “Shadow Pandemic” to Light

Written by Janti Soeripto, President and CEO, Save the Children

While the world is paying rapt attention to the daily rise and fall of the numbers of cases of COVID-19 around the world, there’s another part of this crisis that is not getting the action that it needs: gender-based violence.

UN Women is calling it a shadow pandemic, with the risk of gender-based violence to girls and women surging higher as COVID-19 has forced them to stay in their homes – some trapped with their abusers and isolated from support – and put both economic and psychological stress on families. Girls around the world are living in grave risk of violence. And they need our support right now, especially girls living in humanitarian settings.

Reports just last week by humanitarian responders confirmed that even with the limited quantitative data available, there is cause for extreme concern in humanitarian settings. The Global Protection Cluster, which coordinates the UN’s humanitarian response on gender-based violence and child protection, reported increased rates of gender-based violence related to COVID-19 in 90% of humanitarian field sites where they are responding; over 60% report it having a severe impact on affected populations. 

We know that adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable because of the intersection of their age and gender. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, school closures led to increases in sexual violence experienced by girls. This contributed to a 65% increase in adolescent pregnancy in some districts in the country; and because they were pregnant, those girls were banned from returning to schools when the outbreak ended due to a policy that has since been changed, compounding the impact this violence had on their lives.

Guidance from the UN and gender-based violence practitioners have long called for humanitarian actors to assume that gender-based violence is happening, regardless of whether data on incidence or prevalence is available. That’s both because collecting the data can further endanger women and girls who are experiencing violence, and because even in the best of circumstances, violence is under-reported due to the enduring stigma.

It’s therefore vital that we learn from past experiences – such as the Ebola outbreak — and apply that learning to our current crisis.  We are long past the time where we can pretend we are unaware of the risks of gender-based violence. We have the knowledge and the tools to respond.  We urge the humanitarian community to harness the will to act now to protect a generation of girls from gender-based violence:

  1. Create a specific objective on gender-based violence prevention and response in the final update of the global humanitarian response plan for COVID-19 and mandate the collection, analysis and use of sex, age, and diversity-disaggregated data across all assessments and interventions.

We’re extremely concerned that despite experience and the evidence we do have, gender-based violence is still glossed over in a litany of risks in the global COVID-19 humanitarian response plan. But it’s not too late.

The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) holds the pen on the global plan to address the impacts of COVID-19 in humanitarian settings. They are releasing a final update to the plan next week and have the opportunity to act quickly and make a life-saving difference for girls at risk.

There is broad based support across the global community to do just this, demonstrated by this letter[LA1] endorsed by 576 international and local NGOs, governments, partnerships, institutions and UN agencies.

  • Increase funding for gender-based violence prevention and response in humanitarian contexts proportionate with the extreme need.

Gender-based violence remains grossly underfunded within humanitarian crises, despite evidence that indicates it’s a widespread occurrence. In fact, it only accounts for 0.58% of the current budget for the global response plan for addressing COVID-19 in humanitarian settings — and even that paltry sum has yet to be funded. Donors must back up their rhetoric with funding commitments and programs tailored to address the needs of adolescent girls at risk in humanitarian settings.  This includes not only targeted programs to address gender-based violence, but also integrating it into other programs, such as training frontline health workers so that they can identify and respond to gender-based violence.

  • Prioritize the safe and meaningful participation and leadership of girls and women on the frontline of this crisis in humanitarian decision-making and COVID-19 response efforts.

Recent research from CARE International has shown that despite commitments by the UN and government actors – women’s rights organizations at the local level are still not being meaningfully included in humanitarian decision-making during the COVID-19 response. In addition, local women’s rights actors, essential to the COVID-19 response are not receiving the funding support they need.  Women and girls must be included in decision-making at all levels and receive the funding they need to provide critical gender-based violence prevention and response services. 

Beyond the direct health impacts, COVID-19 is risking decades of progress on gender equality and girls’ rights with devastating consequences for years to come. This is a “shadow pandemic,” that must be brought into the spotlight. Enough is enough.