• Restrictions on mobility, lack of information, increased isolation and fear have led to a 50% decrease in reports in Bangladesh and 30% in Tanzania.

  • In Iraq, new cases only began to come through in the last week of April, resulting in nearly two months without a reported case.

  • If life-saving aid cannot get into the areas where refugees and displaced persons live, the final remaining lifelines for at-risk women will be cut off.

As the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt around the world, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) found through an analysis of its gender-based violence case management data that the suspension of essential protection services for women, as well as restrictions on mobility, lack of information, and increased isolation and fear, have resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of reported cases of violence against women and girls. This is happening as experts warn that for every three months that the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence (GBV) will occur.[1]

In contexts where GBV services have been disrupted, the IRC is seeing almost a complete drop-off in women and girls being able to report and seek help for violence. In Iraq, where the IRC is only able to provide support services over the phone to new clients due to COVID-19 restrictions, reported cases only began to come in during the last week of April, resulting in nearly two months without a reported case.[2] The delay in reporting was due to the difficulties of raising awareness of the hotline number under curfews, which have restricted access to communities and resulted in support only being able to be provided remotely.

In countries where the IRC has been able to keep essential GBV case management services open, additional decreases have also emerged across geographies. Between February and March 2020, the IRC found that in Bangladesh there was a 50% decrease in the number of women and girls reporting for GBV services and in Tanzania, there was a 30% decrease.

The decrease in women and girls seeking services make clear that, while technology-based solutions and remote service delivery modalities are critical, women and girls’ access to technology in many contexts is limited, with phone or digital use often controlled by male relatives. Likewise, women and girl’s opportunity to safely use phones or other forms of digital communication to seek help is severely compromised, particularly in cases of intimate partner violence and child sexual abuse where the perpetrator is present in the same household.

In some humanitarian contexts, such as where there are fewer pre-existing cultural barriers to freedom of movement and where some lifelines are still accessible to women and girls, the IRC is seeing an increase in those seeking services. For instance, the local IRC team in Kenya reports a 20% increase in cases since before COVID-19. In El Salvador, IRC partners report a 70% increase among women seeking services. In Lebanon, after the implementation of a hotline, the IRC saw the number of women and girls seeking support more than double between March and April compared to the first two months of the year.

Consistently, intimate partner violence remains the highest percentage of GBV cases reported to the IRC, but experts remain concerned that cases of early and forced marriage for girls will increase once the full effects of the economic downturn are felt.

To support women and girls in need during COVID-19, the IRC has been adapting its programming to keep services open as much as possible. This includes keeping women's safe spaces and empowerment programming running, with new protocols for social distancing, providing case management for survivors through remote models, and ensuring mental health and psychosocial support are key parts of programming. To continue to reach the most vulnerable during this pandemic, funding is urgently needed, not only to keep programs running, but to make sure that staff are trained on adaptations and to prepare for post-COVID surges in case reports. Governments should support GBV programming through bilateral funding, while the humanitarian system must allocate pooled resources to combat GBV and prioritize this programming in COVID response plans.

Nicole Behnam, Senior Director, Violence Prevention and Response for the International Rescue Committee, said: “We know that crises result in increases in GBV. Lockdowns and other containment measures put those being isolated with their abusers at higher risk, with fewer resources and an inability to seek help. These decreases in women seeking services are heartbreaking, because they don’t tell us that violence is decreasing, but that at-risk women are losing their final remaining lifelines to services and safety. Without access to life-saving protection services, the dangers for women and girls are even more pronounced, especially in countries that were already in crisis before COVID. At the IRC, protection is in our DNA. We are going to continue working to protect women and girls, adapting our programs to the realities of COVID. The time is now to ensure that women and girls do not fall prey to the violent effects of COVID-19.”


[1] As of April 27, and according to UNFPA.

[2] All stats as of May 6 unless otherwise specified.