COVID-19, gender, and disability checklist: Preventing and addressing gender-based violence against women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Gender-based violence (GBV)—which refers to violence resulting from structural power differentials based on gender—can take several forms, including physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, economic, or financial violence, and is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. Even though data on GBV against women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities is scarce, research has found that persons with disabilities are at least three times more likely to experience physical violence, sexual violence, and emotional violence than persons without disabilities. Women with disabilities in particular are up to 10 times more likely to experience sexual violence, and estimates suggest that 40 percent to 68 percent of young women with disabilities will experience sexual violence before the age of 18.

Women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities experience the same forms of GBV as individuals without disabilities, and also face unique forms of violence, including when perpetrators withhold medications or assistive devices or decline to assist with tasks of daily living. The root causes of the higher rates of violence against those living at the intersection of gender and disability are numerous, ranging from stigma, discrimination, and harmful stereotypes based on gender and disability, to the dependence that persons with disabilities have on others in navigating inaccessible information and environments and the lack of respite for caregivers. Many persons with disabilities may also lack access to sexuality education, which might otherwise help them to identify and prevent abuse, and face increased barriers to access justice and report violence, leading to impunity for perpetrators. In addition, women with disabilities are more likely to experience poverty and isolation than are men with disabilities or non-disabled persons, even in countries with a higher standard of living, thus increasing their vulnerability to economic violence and exacerbating financial barriers to leaving violent situations and to accessing services.

During health crises, the risk of GBV is increased, as the measures imposed to stem the spread of the disease and the diversion of resources to respond to the crisis weaken States’ and societies’ ability to prevent GBV. Reports from around the world indicate an increased risk of violence against women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities as part of the “shadow pandemic” of GBV during the COVID-19 crisis. Measures to prevent the spread of the virus have created additional risk factors for women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities, as power imbalances between genders have increased since March 2020, while already largely inaccessible environments, justice mechanisms, and GBV support services have become even harder to access. These increased risk factors, which are explored in more depth in the forthcoming publication as part of this project, The Impact of COVID-19 at the Intersection of Gender and Disability: A Global Assessment and Case Studies, include:

  • Lockdowns and quarantines, which have led to isolation, increased stress, unemployment, and more barriers to meeting basic needs, such as professional services or informal community support. All of these factors, when combined with a sexist and ableist culture, contribute to increasing the risk of GBV and hinder access to GBV support services;

  • Resource reallocation to respond to the pandemic and away from GBV-related supports, investigations, and prosecutions;

  • The shift away from in-person service provision and towards virtual services, sometimes excluding those who have disproportionately lower access to technology, including women with disabilities, who are among the most affected by the digital divide; and

  • The elevated risk in humanitarian emergencies, including natural disasters or conflict.

International human rights law recognizes that all persons with disabilities—including women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons with disabilities—have a right to be free from violence, even when facing humanitarian crises, and all States must respond effectively to GBV, taking appropriate measures to protect all persons with disabilities from violence, exploitation, and abuse, while addressing violence when it occurs. Furthermore, as the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) has found, States parties must exercise “due diligence” to address GBV committed by non-State actors and “will be responsible if they fail to take all appropriate measures to prevent as well as to investigate, prosecute, punish and provide reparation for acts or omissions by non-State actors which result in gender-based violence against women.”