World

The Covid-19 Pandemic and Violence Against Women in Asia and the Pacific

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POLICY BRIEF

28 June 2021

In the background of the global public health and economic turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic lurks another crisis: rising rates of violence against women (VAW). This paper provides a preliminary understanding of how the Covid-19 pandemic influences the prevalence of VAW within Asia and the Pacific.

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Introduction

In the background of the global public health and economic turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic lurks another crisis: rising rates of violence against women (VAW). The true extent of VAW amidst Covid-19, deemed the “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations, will likely never be known as incidents of violence go unreported, stifled by lockdowns and centuries-old power dynamics around the globe. Amidst the combination of overwhelmed health systems, strictly enforced lockdowns, fear of the virus, stressful economic uncertainty and increased screen time, VAW has found a sordid opportunity to thrive. This paper addresses the shadow pandemic’s reach in Asia and the Pacific.

During the 1995 United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, a global consensus was formed around the need to address persistent obstacles to women’s empowerment, solidified in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. One of the strategic objectives of the Platform for Action is eliminating VAW, noting that, “Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Progress towards eliminating VAW has been unsteady and uneven worldwide, including in Asia and the Pacific. Recognizing the need for continued action, in November 2019 member States and associate members of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) reaffirmed their commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action with the Asia-Pacific Declaration on Advancing Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Beijing+25 Review. This declaration calls for the elimination of VAW, “re-emphasizing that sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, in public and private spheres, is a major impediment to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” The Covid-19 pandemic threatens Asia-Pacific’s ability to uphold the declaration’s promises.

Asia and the Pacific is further committed to eradicating VAW through their engagement with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda), which enshrines close monitoring and the eventual elimination of VAW. The fifth goal of the 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Specifically, SDG target 5.2 commits to “Eliminat[ing] all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” To effectively reach the 2030 Agenda’s overarching goal to leave no one behind, governments must take action now to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic from worsening VAW in Asia and the Pacific.

Considering the difficulty of producing reliable statistics on VAW even in “normal times,” this paper demonstrates how the Covid-19 pandemic increases the likelihood of VAW using a theoretical basis. This theoretical work is supported by media reports from regional news sources documenting the pandemic’s effect on VAW, mainly through reported increases in call volumes to domestic violence helplines. While providing an incomplete statistical picture, these types of data are presumably indicative of underlying trends. Additional research will be necessary both during and after the pandemic to better understand how the virus facilitates VAW in Asia-Pacific and which measures are effective at preventing or reducing violence.

This paper provides a preliminary understanding of how the Covid-19 pandemic influences the prevalence of VAW within Asia and the Pacific. The structure of the paper is as follows: the second section provides background on VAW in Asia and the Pacific. The third section describes the theoretical basis for why the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to increase women’s risk of violence. The fourth section describes policy responses to prevent, reduce and support victims of VAW prior to the pandemic as recommended by international sources and as practiced in the region. The fifth section compiles existing evidence of increases in VAW thus far in Asia-Pacific. The remaining sections discuss measures taken by governments and civil society organizations to prevent VAW and support survivors both prior to during the pandemic.
Finally, policy recommendations to address the “shadow pandemic” are provided. If governments in Asia-Pacific wish to uphold their commitments to advancing gender equality and eliminating VAW, they must protect women’s safety even during times of crisis.