Vienna, September 2020 - Before the outbreak of COVID-19 worldwide, one
in three women experienced physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner (UN Women). The UNODC global
homicide data shows the number of women killed by intimate partners or family members is consistently high. We are talking
about 87.000 women per year or six per day. 58% of murdered women are killed by their partners or family.
During the pandemic there has been a dramatic increase of violence against women and girls, particularly of domestic violence. As lockdown measures were put in place to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly found themselves isolated from people and resources that could help them. The post-pandemic economic impact has further limited women’s opportunities to escape violent situations. This “Shadow Pandemic”, as defined by UN Women is “growing amidst the COVID-19 crisis“ and victims, as well as survivors have limited information and awareness about available services and limited access to support services.
As the UNODC takes the lead in the UN system in developing model strategies, model policies and practical measures for the elimination of violence against women, we interviewed Claudia Baroni and Sven Peiffer (Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officers) on their perspective.
Gender Bulletin: An increase of gender-based violence has shown to be common in crisis situations – be it in conflict or a pandemic. How can UNODC support Member States to include gender aspects in their emergency plans?
Sven Pfeiffer: UNODC together with UN Women, WHO and other UN partner agencies are working to support Member States by providing expertise in crime prevention and criminal justice. Especially UNODC has a strong field presence which provides technical assistance to police, prosecutors, judges, legal aid and victim support services. Our work to end violence against women also focuses on data collection and analysis. All these aspects are essential during the pandemic as we are engaging in public advocacy to put effective preventive measures in place as a key essential component of national response plans for COVID-19 in order to redress violence against women.
Gender Bulletin: What support should Member States give to women during the pandemic?
Claudia Baroni: I think that the most important message that governments must provide is zero tolerance
for violence against women and children. Governments should reassure women and children that even though resources are focused
on containing the pandemic, their safety remains a top priority. Furthermore, they must also inform them about the availability
of essential services and how to reach out for help. Their message has to be conveyed at the highest levels to also let perpetrators
know that they will not be able to escape prosecution even though we are in an emergency situation. When it comes to promoting
gender equality, I think that it is important to involve women in the COIVD-19 response – be it on an economic, social, or
political level – and not only when it comes to immediate situations but also in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.And
finally, let us not forget that when it comes to health care workers the majority are women. The past few months have shown
that in many cases women ended up being the bearers of the response, as they have had to take upon themselves a lot of work
Sven Pfeiffer: I would like to pick up on one of the recommendations that the SG has provided in his statements “It is important to set up public awareness campaigns particularly those targeted at men and boys.” It is important to involve men and boys as part of the solution to promote non-violence and gender equality.
Gender Bulletin: What should Member States focus on during the crisis to offer support to women that have become victims of domestic violence. What are some examples of the governmental structures that need to be in place?
Sven Pfeiffer: We think that governments and policymakers should first of all prioritize resources and efforts to ensure continuity and access to essential services to address violence against women and girls during this emergency. This includes preparing for the increase in demand for emergency hotlines, shelters and other essential housing, options for legal aid services, and also for police and justice services. As a minimum, criminal justice institutions must remain able to identify, protect, and provide remedies to those that are at risk. Finally, it is important to also think beyond the context of the current emergency and allocate sufficient funding to deal with the back log of criminal cases where cases dealing with violence against women and girls are given priority as well as providing adequate protection procedures.
Gender Bulletin: How do we encourage Member State to prioritize the eradication of gender-based violence even in times of austerity?
Claudia Baroni: This is going to be a big challenge for the international community as a whole as gender-based
violence is rooted in inequality of power structures. What we are already witnessing is the regression of women’s rights
and all progress that women have made in the past years the due to the economic crisis. To counteract this, women need to
be included in decision-making processes.
Sven Pfeiffer: It is important for Member States to understand that gender-based violence not only has negative consequences for women and girls but also for their families, for their community and for their country at large. For instance, it has an impact on the judicial and healthcare sector. Many survivors are not able to work so it also causes losses in productivity which has an impact on the national budgets as well as the overall development of countries. The UN system as a whole should advocate for combatting gender-based violence to become governmental priority. Through the Spotlight initiatives in different countries, we are supporting Member States in strengthening their response to violence against women and girls. UNODC is also part of the joined UN program on essential services for women and girls who are subject to violence.
Gender Bulletin: What can individuals do to tackle violence against women during the pandemic?
Claudia Baroni: Individuals, as well as local communities, need to be vigilant; understand
what is happening in the neighborhood and respond promptly by alerting relevant services when they suspect that a family member,
friend and/or neighbor is falling victim of violence.
Sven Pfeiffer: Personally, I found it very useful to find out more about why many women stay in their abusive relationship for years before seeking help or why they would return to their abusive partners. This has helped me personally to speak up and challenge others who might say that the abuse cannot have been that bad if she returns to the man after a violent incident. We can all do our part.
Gender Bulletin: The COVID-19 pandemic has – as expected – proven to be far from gender neutral. We have already spoken about the support that Member States should give women during the pandemic. What approaches have been effective over the last few months? In what areas do you see room for improvement?
Claudia Baroni: At this point, we are still in the process of assessing which approaches have proven to
be effective in providing a criminal justice response to women and girls subject to violence during the pandemic. To this
end, the Justice Section initiated an assessment study, the results of which will be available in November 2020. Nevertheless,
what has become apparent during the last months is that the political will of countries to place gender-based violence at
the centre of their national strategies during the pandemic is crucial. Likewise, it is vital to include women, their perspectives
and needs, at the centre of any national post-COVID 19 recovery strategy.
On a positive note, many Member States have adapted to the circumstances and developed innovative and effective approaches during the pandemic in order to ensure that women and girls have access to justice and police services. It has shown us that if countries have the political will, they have the capacity to rapidly adapt to changes and pioneer new approaches, even in the criminal justice system.
Gender Bulletin: Taking stock of UNODCs efforts and approaches thus far to support Member States in preventing violence against women– what are the greatest lessons learned?
Sven Pfeiffer: A number of interesting practices have been taken by criminal justice
agencies in different countries in order to continue prioritizing and responding to cases of violence against women during
lockdowns and restricted movement.
A good example for early action taken by the prosecution service is Argentina, where the Specialized Unit for Violence against Women published a list of urgent measures suggested to prosecutors for cases of gender-based violence in situations of home isolation during the COVID-19 emergency. The measures include dispatching police to stop violence and remove the aggressor from the scene, receiving complaints and statements at home or remotely, as well as applying a number of judicial protection measures.
Courts in India have taken an active role to promote urgent measures to ensure continued protection and access to services for victims of domestic violence during the COVID-19 emergency. This included not only detailed suggestions for ensuring access to a whole range of services, but also required the authorities to submit a report on actions taken in this regard.
Other examples relate to the use of technology and innovation by criminal justice agencies such as the use of mobile phone applications to facilitate reporting of violence in Brazil, the use of video conference technology or telephone to conduct hearings or take statements in Australia or ensuring that survivors can apply remotely for protection or restraining orders in certain jurisdictions of the USA.