The World Health Organization recently reported that 1 in 3 women face physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their life.
In 2015, the United Nations set the Global Goals with a target of eliminating gender-based violence by 2030. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries around the world to reckon with the reality that they are not on track to reach that goal.
The rise in violence against women during the pandemic, referred to by the UN as the “shadow pandemic,” highlights the need for a gender-responsive recovery plan to ensure women survive the impacts of the crisis.
There isn’t a single quick fix to ending gender-based violence, and addressing its root causes can take time. Listening and believing survivors, discussing gender roles early on, making services for survivors essential services, funding women’s organizations, and gathering more data on the issue are all places to start, according to UN Women.
While there is not a simple, short-term solution to ending gender-based violence, governments and organizations around the world are using innovative initiatives to help survivors and women and girls at risk. With travel limited during the pandemic and survivors isolated from help or support, apps, cash transfers, women-run services, and more have offered assistance.
Read more about efforts to help gender-based violence survivors in countries around the world below.
1. Women-Run Services
Gender-based violence often goes unreported or underreported because of the shame survivors experience and the fear that their perpetrators will retaliate, or law enforcement will not believe them. When survivors feel that they will be taken seriously and heard, they are more likely to report incidents of abuse.
Domestic violence reportage increased by 21.7% in Indian cities with the presence of women’s police stations (WPSs). Researchers have found that police officers at WPSs are less likely to impose harmful gender norms on survivors that would suggest they were responsible for or should bear the abuse inflicted on them.
As sexual assault increased in South Africa in 2020, activist Joanie Fredericks launched the Cape Flats, a women-operated taxi service. Fredericks wanted women to feel safe commuting to work or school without dealing with harassment or threats.
2. Cash Transfers
Evidence shows that while cash transfers to women can anger their male partners, one study found intimate partner violence declined in poor households that received them. In Tanzania, sexual violence declined against adolescent girls participating in cash transfer programs that also offered social services.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence survivors in Colombia and Sweden became eligible to receive financial assistance. Italy launched a campaign in 2020 called “Libera puoi” — which means “a free woman can” — to ensure that women who feel they are under threat know they can receive financial assistance to leave home.
3. Code Words at Pharmacies
When women and girls are trapped at home with their abusers, signaling for help can put them at risk of retribution if it becomes obvious that they’re asking for help.
Pharmacies in countries across Europe such as France, Spain, and Germany, as well as in Argentina, introduced code words during the beginning of lockdown as domestic violence rates started to spike worldwide. France advised women to say “mask 19” to pharmacists who would then know to connect them with support. Pharmacies in the UK started using the code word “Ask for Ani.”
Advocates have warned that code words might not be the most effective as pharmacists are not always equipped to handle the situation and it might only work if a woman knows she can seek help at a pharmacy. Some advocates are optimistic that code words at pharmacies could be more promising after the pandemic. Community code words are potentially more useful amongst people who already know each other within families and workplaces.
4. Mobile Apps
Perpetrators of domestic violence often attempt to control their victims’ contact with the outside world, but mobile apps that connect women with help can serve as lifelines for many survivors.
Italy’s government adapted the app YouPol, originally used to help teen bullying victims, to allow users to discreetly ask for help during stay-at-home orders without having to make a phone call.
Since COVID-19 shutdowns began in 2020, a UNFPA-supported psychosocial team near Kiyv, Ukraine, has been providing services to gender-based violence survivors on the apps Skype, Viber, and Zoom.
In Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the Women Safety app introduced in 2018 has been upgraded during COVID-19 lockdowns and alerts police of a survivors’ location to send them emergency assistance immediately.
Meanwhile, a pilot study in Cambodia is experimenting with offering a WhatsApp 24-hour gender-based violence chatline for women who work in entertainment in Cambodia. Women entertainment workers in the country, who often work in nightlife, are commonly subjected to gender-based violence on the job.
5. Free Hotel Rooms
When survivors of domestic violence live with their abusers, be it an intimate partner or family member, having nowhere to go to seek refuge can be a major barrier to seeking help. The COVID-19 pandemic limited access to domestic violence shelters around the world and strict social distancing restrictions has made it even more difficult for survivors to find safety with friends or family members without exposing themselves to the potential risks of the virus.
With shelters at capacity and travel shut down, the French government and cities across the US offered hotel rooms to domestic violence survivors to quarantine safely. After Paris learned of a 36% increase in domestic violence police intervention during the pandemic, the French government launched an initiative to pay for 20,000 hotel nights for domestic violence survivors.
Chicago partnered with Airbnb to offer free home rentals to domestic violence survivors, and Houston created a $650,000 fund to put domestic violence survivors up in hotels.