Amina Hersi
charlotte becker
Florence Ogola

30 years and counting: 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in our COVID-19 world

Amina Hersi, Charlotte Becker and Florence Ogola introduce Oxfam’s new paper on the ‘dual crises’ of Covid and GBV. First published on the Oxfam International blog.

Women, girls, trans and non-binary people have always faced the horrific and sometimes lethal consequences of gender-based violence in our societies, throughout history, in all countries, and in all walks of life. Even before the pandemic, in 2018 alone, 245 million women and girls were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner. That is more than all the people who contracted COVID-19 (confirmed cases) in the last 12 months.

But lockdowns have made gender-based violence spiral. Millions of people became trapped at home with their abusers, in situations of heightened economic and emotional tension. Even when more people moved into online spaces, the increased violence, bullying and harassment followed them there. 

Nancy and her son sought urgent refuge at Oxfam partner, Lifeline, a community-based, non-government, organisation based in Papua New Guinea, after her husband assaulted her. Once she recovered, Nancy received counselling and help from Lifeline, who engaged a lawyer and began working on her case to obtain a protection order for her. Photo: Patrick Moran/Oxfam

At the onset of the pandemic, activists and frontline workers sounded the alarm about the scale of the issue. Domestic and gender-based violence helplines recorded an increase in the number of calls from survivors seeking help. In ten countries including Argentina, Colombia, Tunisia, China, Somalia, South Africa, UK, Cyprus, Italy, and Malaysia the surge in the number of calls to GBV/domestic violence helplines showed an increase of 25% -111%.

However, governments have not done enough to tackle GBV. Women’s rights organizations have had their budgets cut. The collection of GBV data – vital information upon which to build proper and adequately funded global responses – remains woefully inadequate. .

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of “16 Days of Activism” against GBV since activists started it at the inaugural Centre for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. This annual commemoration kicks off every November 25th to December 10th to create awareness about GBV worldwide. This year donors, governments, and individuals must reflect on the impact that the pandemic has had on GBV and commit to real actions to end GBV.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that governments can take extraordinary measures to protect their citizens and respond to deadly crises when spurred to action. We need to see more of this kind of effort to address GBV in their COVID-19 response and recovery plans. We need to be deliberate about making the world safer for women, girls, and LGBTQI+ people. Let’s act now!

Here are five brilliant questions you asked about our recent report and our work on gender rights and justice.

What do you mean when you talk about gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence is any act of physical, psychological, sexual, or economic violence directed against a person, or a group based on their gender, sex or non-conformity to gender norms and stereotypes. It does not only affect women and girls but can be directed at anyone based on these criteria. Trans and non-binary people are affected by GBV and this is often overlooked.

Are you saying that we shouldn’t focus on the COVID-19 pandemic but on GBV instead?

No. We’re saying that as the world works toward a COVID-19 response and recovery, we must also make that a safer post-COVID recovery – and that means using this opportunity to prioritize gender-based safety and security.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on all our lives. This global health emergency needs decisive action and investments. Everybody regardless of where they are in the world need to have access to safe and effective vaccines. There is no question that the world needs to act now to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as our report shows, gender-based violence is affecting hundreds of millions of people with devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of the survivors, with grave consequences that often lead to death. This is a severe pandemic in numbers and impact that needs to be tackled with urgency. We don’t have another 30 years to wait until everyone can live safe and free of violence. This is urgent too!

In Papua New Guinea: Marie investigates gender-based crimes. ©Keith Parsons/Oxfam

GBV has existed for years, how would you be able to change it and, if it is possible, why is nobody doing it?

Gender-based violence is not a natural occurrence. As it is made, so it can be unmade. It is the result of patriarchal structures and unequal power distribution. In the 30 years since the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence started we have done much to highlight the problem, and provide solidarity with suvivors and more understanding of the issue. But we are still not close to eliminating the violence itself. Instead, there has been a surge of violence during the pandemic which shows it is a deeply rooted problem within patriarchal structures and power imbalances that target women and LGBTQI people in excluding them from decision making.

If we are serious about ending gender-based violence, we need to change harmful social norms – that means everyone must get involved. It means that governments must invest in the prevention and response to GBV. It also means that governments must collect quality and better gender-disaggregated data to respond to the GBV pandemic adequately. Every response to the COVID-19 pandemic needs to include efforts to achieve gender justice. A recovery from COVID-19 is possible if the governments implemented gender-just policies and measures.

What is Oxfam doing to end GBV?

Oxfam has prioritized to fight for gender justice and against any form of violence toward women, and girls and LGBTQIA+ people. We believe we cannot have a just society unless women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ people, have full agency over their lives. We work  to challenge harmful social norms and belief systems, including through gender-transformative education. Oxfam advocates for policies and practices that protect the equal rights of women, girls, and those who suffer discrimination based on gender or sex. We equally value and recognize women’s leadership in different spheres of life. We work with over 750 women’s groups and partners in 40 countries to expose and change the patriarchal practices that prevent women from realizing their rights.

How is Oxfam holding itself accountable?

We fully acknowledge our own history in failing to support and protect survivors of GBV and not holding ourselves accountable for violence against women perpetrated by former staff. We committed to fix these failings and we invited external scrutiny of our new and improved policies and procedures. We have increased staff and funding for safeguarding, set up a global database for references to make it harder for wrongdoers to move across the sector, and appointed an independent commission to review our culture and practices to make further improvements. Through our campaigns, programming, and research we work in solidarity with survivors and address the harms we have caused.  We are on a journey and still always have more to do in changing our culture and improving our systems – but we are committed to do so.

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