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UN Projects 'Staggering' 20% Rise in Gender-Based Violence Worldwide During Pandemic Lockdowns

The new data—which also address child marriages, female genital mutilation, and unintended pregnancies—"shows the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 could soon have on women and girls globally."

A resident of the Casa Nepal safe house stands in the upstairs common area on May 8, 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal. The shelter houses approximately 60 women and their children annually.

A resident of the Casa Nepal safe house stands in the upstairs common area on May 8, 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal. The shelter houses approximately 60 women and their children annually. (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

Lockdowns around the world triggered by the coronavirus pandemic could contribute to millions more cases of gender-based violence, child marriages, female genital mutilation, and unintended pregnancies resulting from lack of access to contraceptives in the months ahead, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency.

"Women's reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs. The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported."
—Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA

The new data (pdf) comes from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the global group Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., and Victoria University in Australia. It follows reporting that, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in early April, the world has "seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence" as communities have shut down.

"Projections show that if violence increases by 20% during periods of lockdown," UNFPA warns, "there would be an additional 15 million cases of intimate partner violence in 2020 for an average lockdown duration of three months, 31 million cases for an average lockdown of six months, 45 million for an average lockdown of nine months, and 61 million if the average lockdown period were to be as long as one year."

Those projections include all 193 U.N. member states and "account for the high levels of underreporting seen with gender-based violence." The report notes that the rising rates of violence against women and girls—who are disproportionately victimized by domestic abusers—during the pandemic will come as resources to provide support, counseling, and post-rape care are strained due to the virus outbreak.

People across the globe took to social media Tuesday in response to the new domestic violence data, calling the projections "sickening, heartbreaking," and "staggering." As documentary filmmaker Karoline Pelikan pointed out, "THIS was foreseeable."

In a Devex op-ed highlighted on Twitter by UNFPA, global affairs graduate student and survivor advocate Theresa Puhr wrote last week that "with one in three women globally experiencing violence over their lifetimes, the world was already facing a crisis. Now, COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem."

"The rampant spread of the virus has forced victims to stay at home with their abusers, leaving them with few opportunities to seek shelter or solace," Puhr added. "Victims in the world's poorest countries, especially those with already-existing humanitarian crises, are the most vulnerable. International development organizations must ramp up their efforts to prevent and address domestic violence in order to stop a pandemic of violence from emerging."

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Other projections from UNFPA, as a statement from the agency summarized, include:

  • 47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives and seven million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur if the lockdown carries on for 6 months and there are major disruptions to health services. For every three months the lockdown continues, up to an additional two million women may be unable to use modern contraceptives.
  • Due to the disruption of programs to prevent female genital mutilation in response to COVID-19, two million female genital mutilation cases may occur over the next decade that could have been averted.
  • COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.

"This new data shows the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 could soon have on women and girls globally," said UNFPA executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem. "The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health."

Kanem expanded on her comments in an interview with the Guardian:

"It's a calamity. Totally calamitous," said Kanem. "It is so clear that COVID-19 is compounding the no longer subterranean disparities that affect millions of women and girls."

She said the pandemic "threatened the gains carefully eked out" over recent years. "We are very worried indeed."

She said UNFPA teams in the Arab states and east and southern Africa had reported that "people were rushing to marry their daughters" already, while deaths in childbirth in one east African country had tripled this year.

In the UNFPA statement, Kanem emphasized the importance of providing programs for these issues amid the outbreak. As she put it: "Women's reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs. The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported."

That call for continuing crucial health services for women and girls was echoed by other individuals and organizations worldwide. "The closing of safe spaces and limited mobility means women are unable to access critical services," the International Rescue Committee's U.K. branch tweeted Tuesday. "Women's social services are essential and should be prioritized during the pandemic."

Traci Baird, president of the D.C.-based global group EngenderHealth, told the Guardian that the UNFPA had "put numbers to things that we have been discussing for weeks." She called for immediate an immediate mobilization and said that those organizations working on these issues must be "prepared to manage and support countries, and partners, and families, in catching up after."

"We know what works, we have best practices that have impact," said Baird. "We have to do things better and faster and smarter. We don't have time to do learnings and ramp up phases, or workshops, and meetings. We have to get back to work."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and a live chat service is available at www.thehotline.org. Those seeking support can also text LOVEIS to 22522. All services offer 24/7, free, and confidential support.

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