Action against gender-based violence being pushed to the outlying margins of the global COVID-19 response

A new Oxfam report shows an undeniable increase in gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 pandemic around the world to which too many governments and donors are not doing enough to tackle.

The report, The Ignored Pandemic: The Dual Crisis of Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19, showed the number of calls made by survivors to domestic violence hotlines in 10 countries during the first months of lockdown. The data reveals a 25 to 111 percentage surge; in Argentina (25%), UK (25%), Cyprus (39%), Tunisia (43%), China (50%), Somalia (50%), South Africa (69%), Italy (73%), Colombia (79%) and the largest increase in Malaysia where calls surged by over 111 per cent.

In Canada, according to reported police data, women are more likely than men to experience intimate partner violence (79%) and women also accounted for close to 77 per cent of intimate partner homicides committed in 2018. In April 2020, the Assaulted Women’s helpline in Ontario reported a 400 per cent increase in calls and in BC, the Battered Women’s Support Services hotline reported a 400 per cent increase in calls between April and May 2020.

“The double pandemic of COVID-19 and GBV has been happening all over the world, and Canada is no exception. The government has recognized the severity of the crisis and distributed critical funding to women’s shelters and organizations providing GBV services. Now is the time to allocate sustainable funding to these organizations over the long-term and prioritize the release of the National Action Plan to End GBV so that survivors have access to services no matter where they live,” Megan Lowthers, Women’s Rights Knowledge Specialist for Oxfam Canada, said.

In many households, coronavirus has created a ‘perfect storm’ of social and personal anxiety, stress, economic pressure, social isolation, including with abusive family members or partners, and rising alcohol and substance use, resulting in increases in domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, India too recorded an increase of 250 per cent of domestic violence cases, according to the National Commission for Women. Domestic violence counselors there reported being unable to reach women and girls who were grievously injured or suicidal or those whose partners controlled their access to phones.

The report shows that not enough countries have acted with sufficient seriousness to tackle the GBV pandemic. Even before the surge in GBV cases sparked by the pandemic, in 2018 alone, over 245 million women and girls were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner – a greater number than the global total of coronavirus cases (199 million) between October 2020 and October 2021.

“It is a scandal that millions of women and girls, and LGBTQIA+ people have to live through this double pandemic of violence and COVID-19. GBV has led to injuries, emotional distress, and increasing poverty and suffering, all of which are utterly inexcusable and avoidable. The pandemic has exposed the systematic failure of governments around the world to protect women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people from violence against them – simply because of who they are,” said Oxfam International Executive Director Gabriela Bucher.

Women’s rights organizations whose mission is to support women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people from violence have been more likely to have been hit by funding cuts, exactly at the time when their work is most needed. In an Oxfam survey published in June this year, over 200 women’s rights organizations across 38 countries reported reduced funding and shrinking access to decision-making spaces. Thirty-three per cent had to lay off between one to 10 staff, while nine per cent had to close altogether.

Even though 146 UN member states have formally declared their support for action against GBV in their COVID-19 response and recovery plans, only a handful have followed through. Of the $26.7 trillion that governments and donors mobilized to respond to the pandemic in 2020, just 0.0002 per cent has gone into combating GBV.

“The pandemic has worsened long-standing gender discriminations, and this has increased the vulnerability of women and girls and LGBTQIA+ people to violence and abuse. If governments do not deliberately initiate strong, properly funded strategies to tackle this, the gains made in women’s empowerment in the last 30 years are at risk. We need to avert this, and the time is now,” said Bucher.

A few governments, however, have made efforts to respond to the GBV crisis. For instance, Indonesia and New Zealand introduced national protocols and identified GBV service providers as essential workers. In 2020-21, Canada provided an initial $100 million in emergency funding to over 1,200 organizations, including women’s shelters, Indigenous shelters off-reserve, sexual assault centres, women’s organizations and other organizations providing supports and services to those experiencing gender-based violence. Since April 2020, more than 1.1 million people have a place to turn because of this funding – and the Canadian government committed an additional $200 million over two years to enhance the capacity and responsiveness of organizations providing services and supports for women, girls, LGBTQ2, and gender non-binary people experiencing violence.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that commences today until December 10, 2021 provides an opportunity for governments, donors, and activists to reflect on the emerging issues of inequality that put women and girls at risk and address them urgently. 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 tackle gender-based violence.

Oxfam recommends that states and governments ensure a more coordinated, comprehensive, and multi-sectoral GBV response that enables survivors to access effective and quality services. Governments and donors should channel more funding to women’s rights organizations and feminist movements working to end GBV and support survivors. Additionally, more funding should be allocated to better data collection and analysis of gender-disaggregated national statistics to inform evidence-based interventions to end GBV.

“As the world comes together to mark 30 years of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, there is an urgent need for a truly gendered approach in every country’s effort to respond to and recover from COVID-19. Governments and donors need to live up to their commitments to promote gender equality by ensuring investment in all the areas we know could help end GBV. Only by doing so can we strive for a future that is more just, safe, and in which people live free from discrimination,” said Bucher.

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Notes to editors:
  • The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international event that runs for 16 days from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of violence against women, until December 10, Human Rights Day. This year’s event marks 30 years since its first commemoration in 1991. The event is a platform used by organizations and activists globally to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.
  • The data on calls to domestic/GBV helplines in 10 low, middle- and high-income countries during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been compiled from different UN, national and international NGO reports and government sources. The increase in call volumes is presented as a range between the lowest and highest percentage value among the different countries.
  • Download and read the report:
For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Elena Sosa Lerín
Communications Officer
Oxfam Canada
(613) 799 0234

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