• A new report published by the International Rescue Committee details what violence against women actually looked like after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, across 15 African countries.

  • Interviews with refugee and displaced women within some of the most underfunded and forgotten humanitarian settings found that 73% reported an increase in domestic violence, 51% a rise in sexual violence & 32% observed growth in early & forced marriages

  • Despite unprecedented political attention to the issue, action and funding have remained inadequate, with the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan requesting only 0.48% of funding for GBV.

Ten months since COVID-19 was first identified, a new report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), funded by Irish Aid, finds that the rise in gender-based violence far surpassed those initially reported. Interviews with more than 850 refugee and displaced women living within some of the most underfunded and forgotten humanitarian crises and post-conflict contexts in 15 countries across East Africa, West Africa, and the Great Lakes region found that 73% of women reported an increase in domestic violence, 51% reported sexual violence, and 32% observed a growth in early and forced marriage.

The escalation of violence against women and girls within the home was linked to lockdown measures that forced victims to spend more time with their abusers and prevented them from seeking safety elsewhere, even temporarily. The knock-on effects of COVID-19 also escalated abuse, with the majority of those interviewed noting that the worsening economic conditions contributed to increased violence within the household and community. Respondents also reported that the closure of schools had detrimental effects on the safety of girls, leading to increases in child marriage, adolescent pregnancies, and sexual exploitation and abuse. 

The need for enhanced hygiene practices due to COVID-19 resulted in women and girls, primarily girls under the age of 14, traveling more frequently to collect water, which further exposed them to violence. Of those surveyed, 31% reported harassment and sexual violence on the way to water points and 21% reported harassment upon arrival. In addition, women and girls reported multiple instances of men perpetrating emotional and physical violence against their partners when asked to comply with COVID-19 prevention measures. When asked about the reasons why survivors would choose not to seek help, 56% of women named the fear of being identified as a survivor of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and the related stigma. This fear was further exacerbated by movement restrictions and monitoring at checkpoints.

At the global level, unprecedented attention was dedicated to highlighting violence against women as the “shadow pandemic” of COVID-19, with the UN Secretary General calling for a “domestic violence ceasefire” and demanding that women and girls be put at the center of recovery efforts. This widespread acknowledgement and high-level commitment raised expectations among those on the ground that programming and funding would be adequately supported. Unfortunately, GBV experts within conflict and crisis settings reported that they were once again excluded from strategic planning and decision-making, and in some cases, funding and support were reallocated to other health areas more directly associated with the pandemic. Furthermore, the Global Humanitarian Response Plan failed to provide an accountability mechanism, which resulted in GBV making up only 0.48% of the overall funding appeal.

“With the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and the 20th anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security, 2020 was intended to be a year to celebrate progress toward gender equality,” said Nicole Behnam, senior director for violence prevention and response for the International Rescue Committee. “Instead, COVID-19 is further rolling back progress, especially among women and girls in conflict and crisis settings. Despite the early warnings that predicted increased violence and the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis, the international community continues to treat GBV as an afterthought. The time for excuses has long passed and rhetoric needs to be matched with meaningful action and adequate funding.”

The report also highlights the importance of ensuring women activists, community respondents, and women-led organizations are involved in decision-making so that the diverse experiences of women and girls can be accurately accounted for in recovery plans at all levels. Donors must also put words into action by increasing the levels of transparent and accountable funding for lifesaving GBV services not only during COVID-19, but in efforts to build back better in the years to come.

The report is published under the Irish Aid - IRC Strategic Partnership: Responding to GBV in Acute Emergency and Protracted Humanitarian Crises. The Strategic Partnership is a responsive, transformative GBV standard-setting approach that supports Ireland’s commitments to protect women and girls in acute emergencies and protracted, forgotten crises.