Reflections on peacebuilding and addressing the impact of coronavirus on violence against women and girls

COVID-19 and violence against women and girls

Participant in the Living with dignity project in Tajikistan. © Aziz Satorri/International Alert

2020 and 2021 (thus far) have been defined by the emergence and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) into the pandemic that is currently reshaping almost every aspect of life everywhere in the world.

One of the associated impacts that has been created by this event is a sharp rise in rates of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and intimate partner violence (IPV) against women and girls, something that is important to highlight against the background of International Women’s Day. The increased rates of VAWG and IPV are truly global in scope and rates have not dropped even where social restrictions are being relaxed. Governments and civil society are struggling to identify the correct policy and programmatic responses to address this abhorrent increase.

It is impossible to predict with any accuracy what course either the pandemic or the associated consequences of that pandemic will take over the course of the next few years. However, any expectation that the rise of VAWG as a short-term “spike” will be solved either by the end of lockdown or even the end of the pandemic is an overly optimistic and unlikely analysis. This global spike in violence is a timely reminder that VAWG is as much a feature of peace time as well as conflict, and that its reduction must take a continuous and long-term perspective, with matching investment, on the root causes rather than simply dealing with the symptoms.

VAWG is not a simple causational result of a health crisis or a lockdown. It is an eventual product of a complex set of social, cultural and economic factors, of which the pandemic will have an impact. Understanding these patterns means realising that the long-term impacts of the pandemic on employment, citizen-state trust, and a range of other factors are unlikely to lead to a return to pre-pandemic sense of ‘normality’.

In many areas VAWG levels are likely to remain higher in the medium to long term, even as the more immediate results of the pandemic fade. In summary:

  • COVID-19 does not itself cause VAWG/IPV; rather, it increases the social, economic, political, and cultural pressures that are known to drive VAWG/IPV. Alert’s recent research in Ukraine, Myanmar, and Tajikistan refers to increased unemployment and economic vulnerability, re-emergence of strict social norms and gender expectations, a rise in mental health conditions and straining of social resources and support networks, as well as pressures to attain masculine roles in the COVID-19 environment. Particularly in the COVID-19 environment of heightened unemployment and insecurity, internalised cultural expectations about what constitutes a ‘real’ or honourable man are difficult for many to attain. These difficulties attaining the cultural understandings of patriarchal norms and manhood can lead to violent action to reclaim ‘honour’ and agency, or frequently result in increased perpetration of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), as well as other forms of violence.
  • Even after the virus itself has been brought under control, these conditions will remain, often having been exacerbated or reinforced, impacting conflict affected communities the most.
  • Effective solutions and sustainable interventions will need to unpack the root causes of the deadly VAWG/IPV ‘shadow pandemic’ that will define the post-COVID-19 future for the most vulnerable women, girls, men and boys. Alert seeks to understand the specific norms and expectations that are built up around men, women, boys and girls and to break down the elements of social and economic constructs that lead to violence. This approach would serve the global response to COVID-19 well, allowing work that fully comprehends the contexts in which GBV takes place and the influences that lead to it and that need to be addressed in order to tackle it.

Models that work

Alert has long seen efforts to reduce VAWG as a crucial element of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, and of wider peacebuilding efforts. We have worked with a variety of women’s groups, gender-focused civil society organisations, experts and other stakeholders around the world, developing evidence-based expertise and years of experience in understanding and influencing the way gender and conflict interact. Violence against women has been a core focus of many of Alert’s programmes over the past decade, including in Nepal, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Myanmar, the South Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

However, it is International Alert’s VAWG-prevention work in Tajikistan that offers lessons and opportunities for tackling VAWG in the COVID-19 environment and its aftermath. As part of the UK-funded global What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls initiative, Alert implemented the Living in Dignity (Zindagii Shoista) programme in Tajikistan. This drew on the South African Stepping Stones methodology, combining a gender-sensitisation and economic-empowerment approach, based on in-depth qualitative and quantitative research into the prevalence of VAWG in four locations across the country. Over a three-year period, the project saw a significant drop in prevalence of VAWG from 66% to 30%, a reduction in harmful patriarchal attitudes towards daughters-in-law in traditionally upheld by both men and mothers-in-law in target families, a complete reduction in suicidality, increased food security, increased mobility of women outside the home, and women’s increased participation in family economic decision-making.

The success of this project and its international recognition led to research into the intersection of VAWG and disability, and a second phase in six new locations across the country, supported by the UN Women Trust Fund. The methodology has also been exported to Kyrgyzstan, where it has focused on making the National Strategy and National Action Plan on Gender more inclusive, changing attitudes among religious leaders of different faiths and raising awareness among religious communities and the general public towards VAWG. An adapted version is being implemented in Nepal to reduce gender-based violence by working with communities, schools and the security services. Adaptability is also being considered for Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and Myanmar.

A key component of this work is that it recognises VAWG as a whole-of-society problem that requires a whole-of-society solution; its reduction can have a positive impact on community peacebuilding. For example, in Tajikistan, community leaders reported that prevention of violence at the family level has had positive impact across their villages – there were fewer disagreements between men, who were communicating in a more respectful way to each other, and that men and older women were more accepting of young women’s mobility outside the family home. Therefore, while recognising the disproportionate impact on women and marginalised gender groups, it is vital that interventions do not simply limit focus to these people and instead includes men, boys and others who may not be direct perpetrators or victims of violence but who contribute to the social and cultural factors that facilitate or permit VAWG.

A way forward

Many governments and organisations are struggling to understand how best to utilise their resources and focus their attention in order to provide an effective response, not just to the direct public health implications of the pandemic but to the myriad of negative consequences and knock-on effects that it will cause in, and between, countries around the world. Addressing the sharp increase in VAWG is not only an ethical imperative in this time, but also an area in which we have a clear understanding of what causes the issue and models for how it can be addressed. Thinking about the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased food insecurity and depressed economic outlook for families globally, adaptable approaches such as Living in Dignity can offer solutions and create bridges between the peacebuilding and development sectors, both leading to economic empowerment and lower prevalence of VAWG.

Therefore, for any programming working towards this aim it is imperative to:

  • Identify the unique and specific drivers of VAWG/IPV anywhere in the world, including in fragile and conflict affected contexts. This includes comprehensive research methodologies that explore social and behavioural norms, collecting in-depth data on mental health, masculinities and gendered expectations, as well as economic and livelihoods variables such as financial and food security, savings, labour market needs and prospects, and more.
  • Work with communities and families through deep, long term interventions that address these drivers. A focus on individual-and family-centred approaches, designed to be led and implemented by local actors, has the greatest potential to achieve sustainable change.
  • Create genuine, sustainable changes in attitudes, behaviours, and norms around gender. It is important to go beyond gender sensitisation and simultaneously address individuals’ and communities’ wider needs linked to VAWG to ensure longer-term behavioural change. This should also include the examination of masculinities to understand and address harmful patriarchal norms and culturally embedded gender inequality and power imbalances.
  • Promote a more inclusive, equitable status quo at household and community level that not only significantly decreases levels of violence but also builds resilience for dealing with future conflict. Each phase of work must be prefaced by in-depth research, which means that the key drivers particular to the location are identified and can be addressed from the start. Methodologies are not blueprints – they are living documents to be adapted for each context and so reflect the realities of the people with whom we work, including the specific drivers of violence affecting them, to help communities access the tools to boost resilience to VAWG.