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Gender-based violence and infectious disease in humanitarian settings: lessons learned from Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19 to inform syndemic policy making

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Melissa Meinhart, Luissa Vahedi, Simone E. Carter, Catherine Poulton, Philomene Mwanze Palaku & Lindsay Stark

Abstract

Background

The impacts of infectious disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics are not gender neutral. Instead, infectious diseases and gender-based violence (GBV) mutually reinforce each other. Women and girls in humanitarian settings are disproportionately impacted as crises exacerbate gender inequality, violence, and community transmission. A syndemic model of infectious disease and GBV draws attention to their critical linkage, enabling more effective approaches to address both infectious disease transmission and GBV prevalence.

Main body

Implementation of infectious disease control measures have been consistently absent of critical gender considerations in humanitarian settings. We drew learnings from Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19 to highlight how women and girls living in humanitarian settings have faced bi-directional syndemic vulnerabilities between GBV and infectious disease. Our findings indicate that Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19 exacerbated GBV risk and experience of GBV increased community transmission of these infectious diseases. Moreover, we identified a failure of existing policies to address this mutually deleterious linkage. Thus, we advocate for policymakers to ask three foundational questions: (i) What are the gendered bi-directional risk pathways between infectious disease and GBV?; (ii) How can we act on the gendered risk pathways?; and, (iii) Who should be involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating gender-sensitive policies?

Conclusion

Our syndemic policy framework challenges existing thinking on a neglected issue that disproportionally impacts women and girls. By offering foundational guidance to address and thwart the syndemic of infectious disease and GBV in humanitarian settings, we endeavor to proactively and holistically address the reinforcing linkage between GBV and current or emergent infectious diseases.