UNICEF spoke to Kendra Gregson, Regional Child Protection Advisor; and Maha Muna, Regional Gender Advisor, on the effects of violence, and the responses that are in place
One hidden effect of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is what is going on behind closed doors in many homes across South Asia. Because of the lock-down, women and children who are at risk of violence have been – and are still - locked in with their abusers. UNICEF spoke to Kendra Gregson, Regional Child Protection Advisor; and Maha Muna, Regional Gender Advisor, on the effects of violence, and the responses that are in place.
How big is the problem of violence against women and children in South Asia?
Kendra Gregson: Globally, half the world’s children have experienced violence in the past year. And in South Asia region the numbers are huge. 418 million children or more than 76% of children aged 2 to 17 years in South Asia experience violent discipline or corporal punishment at home.
Maha Muna: When it comes to violence against women, at least one third of women in the world experience some form of violence in their lifetime. In South Asia, these figures are higher than in most countries. The impact of experiencing family violence as a child continues to echo through generations; studies show that experiencing trauma and family violence as children can translate into a higher risk of intimate partner violence among adults when they have families of their own.
**As women and children are locked up with their abusers, what can they do? **
Kendra Gregson: Across South Asia there are toll-free helplines for children to seek support and counselling, and to report issues of concern, like if they are experiencing violence. The helpline has an extensive network on the ground to respond directly, ranging from psycho-social support to legal aid and police interventions.
**Maha Muna: **South Asia has a network of hotlines for women to report abuse and there has been an increase in reports on domestic violence. These hotlines are lifelines for the most vulnerable women, a means of support and community that provides psychosocial and mental health support, as well as referral to existing services including shelters and police. So. it is vital to have effective referral networks in place with accessible health, legal and psychosocial services to provide survivors with support.
What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on the level of violence?
Maha Muna: During times of crisis or emergency, intimate partner violence increases exponentially. India’s National Commission of Women registered nearly double the number of domestic violence cases in March-April as compared to the months before. The present situation in South Asia is very grim with lockdowns limiting mobility and access to critical social support systems for those experiencing domestic violence. NGOs like HomeNet South Asia Trust and prominent women’s organizations in Nepal have issued Charters of Demand urging an immediate response.
Kendra Gregson: Since the lockdowns, the helplines have reported a surge in number of calls. For instance, calls to helplines in Bangladesh increased four-folds. Other South Asian countries, including India, also witnessed increase in number of calls. At first, children were mostly calling to get information on COVID-19 and to calm their anxiety. The number of such calls has decreased but unfortunately, the children who are still calling are also reporting abuse.
**We know that many children, girls and women do not have access to mobiles as they are either being kept with the man in the house, or that the family is simply too poor to afford a mobile phone. How can such children, girls and women get help? **
Maha Muna: Most survivors first go to family members and friends they trust for assistance and calls to hotlines using mobile phones are only the tip of the iceberg. Women community leaders, and even teachers can be the next level of support for survivors – and so community outreach to support and engage them in responses is a priority. Finally, when situations become severe survivors seek assistance from health workers – so equipping them to provide psychological first aid as well as referrals is key.
Kendra Gregson: As Maha said, when children seek advice and help, they usually first go to their family or to their friends. The difficulty now, due to the lockdowns, is that they may not be able to see their friends. There are now online support mechanisms available, but this too isn't easily accessible by everyone.
Are there other impacts of the lockdown that you are concerned about?
Kendra Gregson: As more children are online during this crisis, we are increasingly concerned about online sexual violence and abuse. Anecdotal evidence suggests that predatory activities, including sexual exploitation of children, are on the rise. Before COVID-19, many children reported being bullied by their peers. There is also a potential increase in online bullying as children spend more time online.
Maha Muna: For many women, the stress of being pregnant and giving birth is getting compounded by fear and anxiety of being infected with the COVID-19 virus by having to leave their home during the lockdowns for check-ups, and not knowing which hospitals to visits for regular treatment. We are already witnessing a decrease in the numbers of medical visits before and after birth, and lower numbers of hospital deliveries. We are working closely with governments to keep these lifesaving reproductive health and maternal health services open and accessible. At the same time, given the circumstances, outreach workers such as community health workers, now have a critical role to play in making sure women, families and communities are receiving accurate and updated information on the availability of reproductive health, maternal and new-born care services.
**What are some of the challenges that you’ve had to overcome in resuming services? **
Kendra Gregson: Many governments have recognized child helpline staff as essential service workers, and these helplines are an essential service to protect children. However, they largely rely on referrals and not all services are able to operate smoothly during lockdowns. We’ve had to modify and work through services that are functional including developing new relationships and referral pathways. For example, India’s helplines now connect callers with on-line counsellors given callers cannot meet counsellors in-person. Other essential service workers, such as the probation workers in Sri Lanka and the police in Bangladesh, continue to serve in their capacities as part of the overall referral system.
Maha Muna: When the lockdowns started, it took time for governments to consider support and response systems as essential services. Many of the women’s hotlines are now operating once again, and women’s organizations are figuring out how to work during lockdowns. For instance, in Bangladesh, new staff have been retrained to manage the government hotline number and more are being trained. In India’s Uttar Pradesh, police have dedicated a separate SOS line for women to report violence. Likewise, women groups have started organizing public awareness campaigns throughout the region to raise awareness about domestic violence and support referrals for care.
Have there been any surprises?
Kendra Gregson: The lockdowns have shut businesses, such as restaurants and brick kilns, that employ children as labourers. In some countries childcare institutions have been temporarily closed and children sent back to their families; and children who were in detention before their trial or for minor misdemeanors have also been sent home. Here we have an opportunity to work with governments and families to strengthen child protection services that will ensure children remain united with their families and grow to their full potential.
**What should governments be doing? **
Kendra Gregson: We are happy to see governments across South Asia starting to recognize the social service workforce as essential in the response to COVID-19. Governments must continue to support and invest in these frontline workers since they are helping individuals cope with rising anxiety and stress and preventing it from taking violent forms that endangers the individuals themselves or their loved ones. At the same time, countries must prioritize providing correct and concise information to the public. Like hand washing messages, the message against violence needs to go out too. We are also seeing an increase in discrimination against certain groups – like those feared of having COVID-19. Governments must tackle this early on before these incidents flare into communal unrests and violence. Eliminating violence against children is a smart investment for any country. The cost to provide the social and health care to a violence survivor with the impact of violence survivors not reaching their full earning potential, conservatively is estimated to cost 2% of the global gross domestic product, or billions of dollars. Every dollar spent towards eliminating violent discipline can pay back US$ 11. All to say, prevention of violence against children pays.
Maha Muna: Local women organizations are vital components of any country’s social service network. Women, children and families trust and confide in them. In Nepal and around the region women’s NGOs like SABAH are reaching the most marginalized communities to support home-based workers, their families and communities. These organizations must be supported as they take on leadership and support roles in their respective countries and in South Asia as part of regional networks.
Tackling domestic violence begins with prevention. UNICEF has advanced research and innovative programming on what we know works to end violence against women and girls. Countries like Sri Lanka are pathfinders in the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children. Others are implementing the seven INSPIRE strategies for reducing violence against children.
What has UNICEF been doing?
Kendra Gregson: We’ve been training social service workers since before the crisis. Across the region, to meet the growing needs, we have started virtual trainings of trainers in Pakistan and started training additional social service workers in Bangladesh. Across the region we link children with psycho-social support such as through helplines, we promote adolescent empowerment by connecting adolescents virtually and through radio, we are working with parents to support them in caring for their children, we work with the court system so that cases involving children can be resolved, and the list goes on. Preventing violence and protecting all children is an essential part of UNICEF’s work during this crisis.
Maha Muna: UNICEF is experienced in emergency response, keeping women and children at the center of our actions. Across the region, we are supporting government and NGO partners, including with helplines, hotlines and health services that continue delivering maternal, child and reproductive health services. We are identifying how to reopen schools safely. In Afghanistan and other countries, we are carrying out community-based assessments to continuously strengthen our response. In Bhutan, UNICEF partner with UNDP and UNFPA to support a robust government system to respond to gender-based violence. In Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, approximately 850,000 Rohingya refugees are living in crammed spaces with few options for physical distancing, so virtual assistance is provided by staff of Women and Girl’s Safe Spaces. We vow to Stay and Deliver.