About one in every three women in the world aged 15 and older have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their life, according to the World Health Organization. And, for 16% of those aged between 15 and 24, it has happened within the past 12 months. From Europe to Asia and Africa to the Americas, COVID-19 has triggered dramatic increases in violence against women in every region of the world. In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the UN chief called for an end to the rising surge of violence against women and girls.
Gender-based violence has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Calls to helplines increased five-fold in some countries as the movement was restricted in response to the health crisis, causing both social isolation and increased economic insecurity in ways that made women more vulnerable to violence at home.
Gender-based violence is a human rights violation with devastating immediate and long-term physical, sexual, and mental consequences - which can prevent women from fully participating in society. Rates of depression, anxiety, unplanned pregnancy, sexually-transmitted disease, and HIV are relatively higher among women who have experienced violence. This can strain health care systems, and undermine productivity; the estimated annual cost to the global economy of discriminatory social institutions and violence against women is roughly $12 trillion.
We know change is possible. At least 155 countries have passed domestic violence laws, and 140 have legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace - through enforcing these laws remains a challenge, and women and girls are frequently denied access to safety and justice. Not enough is being done to prevent violence or to mete out punishment when it occurs.
According to the UN Women-UNDP COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, as of March 2021, 52 countries had integrated prevention and response to violence against women and girls within their pandemic response plans, and 136 had adopted measures to strengthen services for female survivors of violence during a pandemic. Still, more action is urgently needed.
Potential solutions include laws and policies to promote gender equality and punish perpetrators, comprehensive and accessible survivor-centered services for women and their children, greater prevention and more coordinated responses to gender-based violence from health, judicial, educational, and social service providers, and greater efforts to challenge norms and attitudes that harm women and girls, strengthened collection, measurement, reporting, and use of related data in decision-making, and increased support for community-based organizations’ advocacy and action to end gender-based violence.
To this end, the UN’s Spotlight Initiative has so far, educated 880,000 men and boys on positive masculinity, respectful relationships, and non-violent conflict resolution. From taxi drivers to sports clubs, men are actively participating in programs to prevent gender-based violence and support women, and survivors.
The UN is working with governments and legislators to strengthen laws and regulations that better protect women and girls. Let’s work together to ensure that every woman and girl can live their lives free from violence, with the safety, dignity, and freedom they deserve.