For girls and women, COVID-19 has been dangerous in more ways than one. Gender-based violence has surged worldwide in what the United Nations has deemed a “shadow pandemic.” But as we near the end of 2020, the sense of urgency that fueled the early response is fading – pushing this crisis further into the shadows.
What’s worse, this rise in domestic violence was not unexpected. As lockdown measures took effect – and girls and women were trapped with abusers and cut off from support services – survivors, advocates and experts all warned that domestic violence would spike. And they were right.
In the UK, the number of women murdered by their partners increased nearly three-fold during the first lockdown. In Tunisia, calls to a domestic violence hotline increased five-fold in the early lockdown period. These are by no means outliers. Statistics and stories have poured in from around the world.
Even before COVID-19, gender-based violence was a widespread problem. A third of all girls and women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. This is an entrenched public health problem and a human rights violation of unfathomable scale. But it is not insurmountable.
In the early days of the pandemic, governments scrambled to take emergency measures to fight the rise in domestic violence. Canada allocated $26 million to support shelters for women survivors of violence and France set aside 20,000 hotel room nights for survivors in need. But months later, gender-based violence has once again been put on the backburner as COVID-19 consumes global attention and resources
We must maintain the sense of urgency that spurred those early actions to bring about real and lasting change. That starts by bringing new allies into the fight.
First, we need to get more men on board. The majority of gender-based violence is perpetrated by men – including violence against other men. This is necessary to state since our language too often treats violence as something that just “happens” to girls and women. To make real change, we need to be able to name and identify the causes of this violence.
Male perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and brought to justice, but they also must be understood as people shaped – as we all are – by our patriarchal world. Changing gender norms won’t happen overnight, but there are men and boys all over the world striving for better. And the promising work being done to engage them by partners like Promundo, the White Ribbon Campaign and UNFPA proves change is possible.
We also need the private sector to step up. Basic workplace safety and zero tolerance policies are not enough. Companies should deploy their considerable resources and reach to tackle gender-based violence. For example, is there a bold beauty company ready to run an awareness campaign? What about the influencer industry – how can they spark conversations with their audiences?
And as COVID-19 forces us to spend more time online, more needs to be done to protect girls and women in digital spaces. Gender-based violence manifests on social media platforms, and for women who hold positions of public leadership or visibility, rape and death threats have become commonplace. Social media companies need to scale up efforts to rid their platforms of violence and harassment.
And finally, we need more resources and more donors – including foundations, companies and individuals – to fuel the fight against gender-based violence globally. This demands both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. The European Union and the United Nations launched the Spotlight Initiative – a first-of-its-kind partnership to invest in gender equality and the elimination of violence. But we can – and must – do more.
The upcoming Generation Equality forum in Mexico City presents an opportunity to make bold demands of governments and global funders, and resource a plan to end gender-based violence. But just as important will be funding the civil society groups and local women’s organizations that are first responders for survivors.
We cannot fall back into the vicious cycle of stalled progress and regression that has characterized global efforts to end gender-based violence for far too long. With a long winter ahead of us, we must do more to prevent domestic abuse and support survivors. COVID-19 is not the only curve we need to flatten.
But with new allies in this fight – men who stand up for women, companies committed to the cause, and funders bringing resources to the table – we can bring this shadow pandemic into the light, the first step toward ending the violence that has plagued girls and women for millennia.
Michelle Milford Morse is the vice president for Girls and Women Strategy at the United Nations Foundation. Follow the organization on Twitter @unfoundation.