ICJ webinar highlights difficulties in responding to gender based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic

At a webinar hosted on 26 May, the ICJ heard from women human rights defenders (WHRDs) from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East discussed the adverse impact on women of lockdowns and other measures imposed by governments around the world as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reports from around the world indicate a rise in the number of cases of domestic violence and new challenges faced by women victims in accessing justice.

“Support or assistance for women experiencing domestic violence was not classified as an essential service that may continue when the country went on lockdown,” said Nonhlanhla Dlamini who is the Director of Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) in Eswatini. Still, SWAGAA and other NGOs in Eswatini persisted in their work to lobby the government to classify their work as an essential service.  The government later provided authorization to allow SWAGAA’s staff to move more freely in order to assist women experiencing gender-based violence during the lockdown.

Theresia Iswarini, Commissioner of Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (KOMNAS Perempuan), observed that because of the limited movement during the lockdown, NGOs are having a hard time reaching women experiencing domestic violence who do not have phones or any devices to access the internet.

NGOs also face the challenge of placing these women in safehouses because they need to first present a certificate that they are COVID-free before they are accepted in the safehouse and such certificates are almost impossible to secure during the pandemic.

The WHRDs assisting women experiencing gender-based violence often also need psychosocial support, as  “they also have to deal with the additional burdens of overseeing the homeschooling of their children and caring for family members who may have also fallen ill.”

In Sri Lanka, Mariam Dawood who is the Legal Adviser from Women in Need (WIN), noted that “women in Sri Lanka have always faced this problem and [of being] ignored when they report gender-based violence to police authorities.”

She also shared that while courts had started to operate on a limited basis in the country, women in maintenance cases risk being exposed to infection because they have to appear in court at least every month to get an order from the judge to compel their spouses to pay alimony or child support.

These orders were not automatically renewable and must be obtained by women every month from the court.

ICJ Commissioner and Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Nahla Haidar asked participants to think about how civil society could mobilize other stakeholders in pandemics to give an ethical call on how behaviors can change at home.

“Who is responsible? We have been trying to speak to faith leaders, especially women faith leaders [in the MENA region]. I am wondering how these channels can be used, as well as within traditional leadership channels in Africa,” Haidar said.

ICJ Senior Legal Adviser, Emerlynne Gil, noted that many of the issues raised showed that even during the pandemic, governments reproduced patriarchal approaches to public polices which effectively saw women as subordinate to men.

“This inequality underlines many of the actions taken by governments around the world to curb the pandemic,” said Emerlynne Gil. She added: “This means that it is all the more important for groups like the ICJ to continue its work eliminating gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices in the work of justice actors around the world.”

During the webinar, the ICJ launched an animation calling on States to adopt gender-sensitive responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch the animation here:

The webinar was live streamed on ICJ Asia’s facebook. Watch the livestream here:

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