A new report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shows  that a quarter of women and girls in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh experienced gender-based violence (GBV) prior to COVID-19. The finding is based on screening data from women and girls accessing health support linked to GBV response services through the IRC. Since COVID-19 lockdown measures were put into place, the IRC has seen a 50% decrease in reports, despite knowing that violence is increasing.   

Prior to COVID-19, the IRC found that 81% of women and girls seeking GBV case management services did so because of experiences of intimate partner violence (IPV). The data also shows that despite low uptake of clinical care, possibly due to the stigma and shame that can be associated with such violence, over 90% accepted privately-conducted psychosocial services, showing just how vital such support is. 

The data was collected before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown measures imposed in response to the virus have further reduced freedom of movement and the availability of, and access to, services in Cox’s Bazar. The failure to designate all GBV prevention and response programmes as ‘essential services’ means some have been shuttered indefinitely, removing vital avenues for women and girls seeking support in an environment where they can feel safe. 

The IRC is working hard to adapt its support services, keeping Women and Girls Safe Spaces open, while observing social distancing, and installing hand washing stations to promote good hygiene practices. GBV case management has been deemed essential across all camps in Cox’s Bazar, but freedom to disclose abuse and seek meaningful care is drastically reduced while women are at home, coupled with restrictions on internet and phone services inside the camps.  

Manish Agrawal, Bangladesh country director for the IRC, said: “For refugees at risk of violence and abuse, the coronavirus outbreak is a crisis upon a disaster. At the heart of the problem is the unequal power dynamic between men and women. Inequalities are magnified during crises, existing trauma and sexism rise, women are cut off from support, and stresses are compounded by economic pressures. 

The value of preventative work to tackle existing biases – including outreach from community leaders to challenge destructive and damaging behaviours - must not be underestimated, but rather prioritized in such times, alongside life-saving support services for women and girls. Failure to address GBV could result in a shadow pandemic of suffering with long term physical and psychological consequences.”

 To effectively address GBV in Cox’s Bazar, the IRC recommends: