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Bringing the shadow pandemic to light

Please…. Relieve us from this hell! These are the pleas from women and girls across the world, trapped in a cycle of violence. Do we hear these voices echoing louder and louder?

Saroja’s* is one compelling voice among many. As a mother of 3, it was heartbreaking to hear of the abuse she faced by her husband. She didn’t want to leave - not without her children, and so she endured it all for years. She didn’t want her children to see her like this, nor did she want them to get used to this violence. So she pleaded to relieve her from this “hell” she and her children were living in.

This is just one story and sadly not unique

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Across the world, countries are in lockdown, with millions confined to their homes due to COVID-19. However the positive efforts to tackle the spread of the virus also bring to light another deadly danger. We see a shadow pandemic growing, of violence against women and girls.

 

For countless women worldwide experiencing domestic violence, being in lockdown at home is not safe. Abuse survivors like Saroja* suddenly found themselves shut in with their abusers. Helplines are reporting a rise in the number of calls for help against violence that is taking place behind closed doors - in the shadows. 

 

In Sri Lanka, since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports show an increase in the number of calls made to the 24 hour 1938 National women’s hotline and other helplines. This number may not fully reflect the extent of the problem as many women are not aware of the hotline services, are unable to make a call, or don’t make the call for various reasons.

 

Lengthy confinement coupled with tensions fueled by the stresses of job losses, health and safety, and money worries, have made family situations worse, further exacerbating violence from an intimate partner. This also hinders victims and survivors from reaching out for support and care.

 

Health systems are stretched in responding to the pandemic, and domestic violence shelters are also reaching capacity – something that needs to be addressed within recovery measures from the crisis, as this has both immediate and long term consequences.

 

Crises have been always linked with a surge in reported cases of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), and it also undermine strategies to end violence against women. Even before COVID-19 plagued the world, SGBV was one of the greatest human rights violations.

In 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), world leaders formed the consensus that sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are a bedrock necessity for the growth of every country. The 2019 Nairobi Summit re-energized this rights movement as it mobilized political will to achieve the goals of the ICPD and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Sri Lanka has always been part of this global effort.

 

The Nairobi Summit rallied support to achieve “three zeros” – zero unmet need for family planning, zero preventable maternal deaths, zero gender-based violence and harmful practices – by 2030. A year later COVID-19 threatens to slow the pace of progress and undo the achievements. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that more data was needed for policy makers to comprehend the extent of the problem and thereafter formulate effective evidence-based solutions so Saroja* and other women can be safe from violence.

 

With this in mind, the United Nations Population Fund with support from the Government of Canada provided technical assistance to the Department of Census and Statistics to undertake a survey to collect data on SGBV in Sri Lanka, with a specific focus on intimate partner violence. According to the study, one in five (20.4%) ever-partnered women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The study also highlighted that nearly half (49.3%) of the women who experienced sexual violence by a partner did not seek formal help anywhere due to reasons such as shame, embarrassment and fear of being blamed, and/or thinking the violence was normal or not serious enough to seek help.

In addition, the study clearly shows the damage on the next generation. For example, women with school age children who had experienced physical or sexual partner violence were twice as likely to report their child(ren) had nightmares than women who had no physical or sexual partner violence. Women who experienced violence by a partner were also three times as likely to have a child who dropped out of school compared with women who never experienced violence.

 

Global evidence also shows children who have experienced or witnessed violence at home are more likely to become either perpetrators or victims of SGBV. We must stop this vicious cycle.

 

Violence against women and girls continues to plague women in Sri Lanka and across the world, but this year COVID-19 has fanned the flames and this is the reason to highlight it now more than ever.

 

The pandemic’s long-term socio-economic effect may make the road steeper, but our joint efforts must continue.

 

Post-COVID-19, families may need a financial push, and countries need to make the right investments commensurate with the needs of the most left behind women and girls—for prevention, for education, for support and for lifesaving sexual and reproductive health and SGBV services. Failing to pay particular attention to the specific needs of women and girls in times of crisis will limit their capacity to enjoy their basic rights and to contribute to national development and recovery processes. As Sri Lanka tries to recover from COVID-19, this survey is particularly important as it the first ever comprehensive national study on SGBV prevalence in Sri Lanka, and provides an accurate baseline to assess progress and contributes to monitoring the indicators of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development.

 
During this year’s 16 days of activism against GBV, marked universally from 25 November to 10 December, this year we want to draw focus on the millions of women like Saroja* who are suffering in silence.  Let’s pay tribute to the frontline health workers and GBV service providers who strive to create a safer world for all. Let us also call for action by policymakers to prioritize this issue even amidst of the pandemic because the world cannot prosper if a home is not safe for women and girls. This is an important part of our commitment to leaving no one behind, and UNFPA and the Government of Canada will continue to support the Government of Sri Lanka as well as local civil society organizations to achieve this vision.

 

Together, let’s shed some light on this shadow pandemic and eliminate violence against women and girls!


This Opinion-Editorial is co-authored by H.E. David McKinnon, High Commissioner of Canada to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Ms Ritsu Nacken, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative of Sri Lanka and Country Director, Maldives

 

*The name was changed to maintain confidentiality.