OPINION: We must protect women from sexual violence during coronavirus lockdown and beyond

by Nadia Murad | Nadia’s Initiative
Tuesday, 19 May 2020 09:45 GMT

A member of medical staff, assists a Yazidi displaced woman to wear a protective face mask, following the coronavirus outbreak, at the Sharya camp in Duhok, Iraq March 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nadia Murad is a Nobel Peace Laureate, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador, and president of Nadia’s Initiative.

Women are often on the frontlines of those most vulnerable during crisis situations. They are targets of gender-based violence (GBV) in war, conflict, economic crises, disasters, pandemics, and in their everyday environments. GBV is a result of systemic inequalities between men and women that pervade all societies. As a survivor of sexual violence, I have used my voice to call out injustice for many years and in all parts of the world. I will use it once again to say that COVID-19 is negatively impacting women globally and we are not doing enough to address it.

According to UN Women, 243 million girls and women globally between the ages of 15 and 49 experience sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner annually. This number has significantly increased due to the global lockdown.

COVID-19 is severely undermining efforts to end GBV through reduced access to prevention and protection, such as social services and care, and increased incidences of violence. Fears around security, health, and finances lead to heightened stress and anxiety and intensify domestic tensions in already confined living spaces. While the current economic downturn is affecting both men and women, past evidence shows that domestic violence against women increases during periods of high unemployment. In a lockdown, a women’s home may become the most dangerous place she can be – it presents abusers with an increased opportunity to inflict harm, while victims have reduced access to support networks.

In my home country of Iraq, domestic violence is an ongoing and serious problem. According to the Iraq Family Health survey, 1 in 5 Iraqi women are subjected to domestic violence. All forms of violence are expressly prohibited in the Iraqi Constitution, but Iraq’s criminal code does not mention domestic violence. Only the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a law on domestic violence. Recent efforts to draft a similar law in Iraq have stalled in the Iraqi parliament.

As in many other countries, COVID-19 has exacerbated instances of domestic violence in Iraq, with an average increase of 30% since the country-wide curfew began, and some regions seeing an increase as high as 50%. These statistics illustrate the immediate need for domestic violence to be criminalized in Iraq through the codification of law.

For survivors of violence and women displaced in Iraq and globally, the consequences of COVID-19 lockdowns often mean limited access to life saving services. It is now difficult for these women to access psychosocial support, health, and security. Many safe shelters have been temporarily suspended, closed, or repurposed, leaving them in a heightened vulnerable state.

We must recognize the threat COVID-19 poses to survivors of GBV and respond accordingly. Collectively, we need to provide extra support to protect those experiencing GBV through specialized training of first responders, additional emergency shelters for survivors, immediate removal of abusers, and increased support for helplines. 

My organization, Nadia’s Initiative, advocates for survivors of sexual violence and rebuilds communities in crisis. During COVID-19, our work encompasses both emergency response initiatives and projects that will provide long-term mitigation measures to COVID-19. Our emergency response work includes providing thousands of vulnerable women and families with food and sanitation kits. Our long-term programmatic work is focused on investing in the development of the healthcare sector and women’s empowerment in Sinjar.

Yazidi women have survived sexual violence, genocide, and displacement. They live in a constant state of vulnerability. The need to support Yazidi survivors is exponentially higher when their access to healthcare, psychosocial support, and safe shelter is greatly reduced. The Iraqi government must step up to do more to protect vulnerable groups like Yazidi survivors.

It is more important now than ever to support women – to listen to them and take their stories seriously. Violence against women is ongoing, it is global, and it has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Governments worldwide need to prioritize their efforts to reach women in distress and provide safe spaces when needed. Women’s health and safety is at risk. Too many lives have already been lost to COVID-19 – governments and civil society must do everything they can to protect women who are now doubly vulnerable.

Women and girls who are displaced and stateless are most vulnerable during this pandemic. Critical services for survivors of GBV must be designated as essential and accessible to those displaced. Survivors must have access to healthcare, security, psychosocial support, and safe shelter.

We must not forget that at the heart of GBV is systemic gender inequalities within society. In order to change this, we need to tackle these inequities both on a policy level and a local level. This systemic change requires the involvement of the public and a strong political will. Men are as much a part of the solution as they are a part of the problem.

Those most vulnerable should not be forgotten during this pandemic. Women and girls have the right to live free from all forms of violence – now and forever.