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Break The Silence: Ending Gender-based Violence Is A Human Rights Imperative

is a global epidemic of violence against women – both within
conflict zones and within societies at peace – and it is
still treated as a lesser crime and lower priority” had said
Angelina Jolie, actress and then UN Ambassador for refugees
more than five years ago. With the onslaught of the pandemic
and global public health emergency and cascading
humanitarian crises, these words have only become even more
relevant today.

The Asia Pacific region presents some
very challenging development indicators for women and girls
and socially excluded and marginalized populations. There
are deep rooted gender inequalities and discriminatory
socio-cultural norms and practices arising out of
patriarchal systems and structures, and sexual and other
forms of gender-based violence continues to remain pervasive
in the region.

According to latest statistics, the
proportion of women in Asia Pacific who have experienced
physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their
lifetime ranges from 15% in Bhutan, Japan, Lao PDR and
Philippines to 64% in Fiji and Solomon Islands. Also 4% (in
Japan) to 48% (in Papua New Guinea) of women have
experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12

Also, in most countries of the region, women
are much more likely to have experienced physical or sexual
violence at the hands of intimate partners, rather than by
other perpetrators. Thus women who are experiencing violence
are unable to find ways to stop the violence or to leave the
violent relationship. Moreover, many communities often
stigmatise the survivors and perceive some practices, like
domestic violence, as acceptable.

Several studies have
proven that sexual and other forms of gender-based violence,
which is perpetuated by poverty and various gender-biased
sociocultural norms and values, escalates in crises
situations. The findings of one such study conducted in
Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, as shared by Melania Hidayat,
National Programme Officer on Reproductive Health, UNFPA,
Indonesia, reveal that incidents of sexual and other forms
of gender-based violence, sexual harassment, rape and
domestic violence increased in the aftermath of a natural
disaster (earthquake followed by landslide). However, the
general reaction of the survivors was to remain silent due
to fear (of the perpetrators), shame and lack of support
from immediate family members. They often have to bear the
double burden of sanctions and blame from the community as

Hidayat rues that even humanitarian workers,
programme managers or service providers do not see
prevention and management of sexual and other forms of
gender-based violence as a priority in emergency
humanitarian responses and the mechanism for reporting and
management of sexual and other forms of gender-based
violence does not exist. At the same time, community
awareness and understanding is also low that tends to put
the survivor to further risks of violence.

Then again,
as the UN Secretary General has very rightly and repeatedly
said, the global lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have
resulted in a “horrifying surge” in the already existing
gender-based violence, further deepening gender

The heightened risk of sexual and other
forms of gender-based violence for women and girls due to
the pandemic has deeply affected the Asia Pacific region as
well. It has placed additional barriers to operationalize
many of the existing prevention strategies, thus limiting
the ability of survivors of sexual and other forms of
gender-based violence to distance themselves from their
abusers and/or access life-saving services related to sexual
and other forms of gender-based violence.

But there
have been some promising adaptations, as shared by Sujata
Tuladhar, Technical Specialist (gender-based violence) UNFPA
Asia Pacific. She gives the examples of several countries
where a variety of digital tools, including community based
radios and televisions, are being used to continue with
community engagement and mobilization programmes, in the
face of the pandemic.

In Philippines, social media and
other online platforms, including text messaging via phone,
are being used to raise visibility of violence against
women, challenge the stereotypes, and share information
about existing services. Where these are not possible,
countries are adapting to spread the messages through
loudspeakers or in moving vehicles.

In the Pacific
Island countries messages around gender-based violence are
being included in emergency cards that are given to
communities to provide COVID-19 related

In Pakistan, Mongolia, Indonesia and some
other countries tele-counselling modalities have become very

In Nepal trained community based
psychosocial workers have been equipped with cell phone
credits, so that they can continue to reach out and respond
to women at risk of violence in their communities

Some countries are also exploring the
concept of creating shelters through partnerships with
Airbnb, hotels or university dorms that make rooms available
for gender-based violence survivors in a safe

Service providers are also connecting to
gender-based violence survivors via mobile safety apps and
other online resources. One such example is a mobile app
‘Her Voice’ that was recently launched in the

Community-based health workers, like
midwives and female health workers, are being further
supported to safely identify cases of gender-based violence,
provide first line support and facilitate referrals. A case
in point is in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, where midwives sit
in women-friendly spaces and provide support to gender-based
violence survivors, despite COVID-19 related restrictions in

COVID-19 has forced many of the capacity
building initiatives to move online and become virtual.
Tuladhar says that it has been quite a realization that this
modality can work even for very specific gender-based
violence related areas – like trainings for case management
and for hotline operators – which can be made available
online for more participants in far off areas at no extra
cost, thus bridging many financial and geographical
barriers. While the effectiveness of these virtual
modalities of capacity building will need to be evaluated,
they seem to hold a lot of promise.

Despite all these
efforts, several challenges remain. In most contexts,
gender-based violence services and responses are still not
considered as part of essential COVID-19 response and remote
delivery of gender-based violence services continues to be

We are also seeing new emerging forms and
means of perpetrating violence. Digital technology
facilitated gender-based violence, is the new demon on the
block. Victim-survivors have little recourse against the
many forms of online gender-based violence where the
perpetrators use the internet to remotely resort to
blackmail, release of personal information and private
photos without consent, online stalking and threats of harm,
that has devastating effects on the psyche of their targets
and often forces them to move out of online

the way forward

Perhaps the COVID-19
pandemic has provided an opportunity to further evolve and
innovate approaches to ensure long term transformative
changes to end sexual and other forms of gender-based
violence, which is probably going to outlive the pandemic.
We will have to take concrete steps to be able to prevent
the pandemic’s longterm impacts on gender equality and
women’s empowerment after it is over.

One point that
emerged strongly during a virtual session of the ongoing
online 10th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and
Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR10) was that it is
important to engage and empower men and boys, and not just
women and girls, for prevention of violence. We cannot
solely look into the women and girls. For gender equality we
also need to work hand-in-hand with the men’s crew, said
Professor Thein-Thein Htay, former Deputy Health Minister of
Myanmar and noted public health expert.

But Hidayat
cautions that while it is good to have initiatives from male
groups to work together and fight to end gender-based
violence, one needs to be careful to not put male
involvement as an area for males to dominate the women more.
The intention is to safeguard the women without limiting
their activities or work.

Sagar Sachdeva, Programme
Coordinator at The YP Foundation, India, blames the growing
religious fundamentalism and right wing nationalism in
countries like India, which is also getting legally codified
and thus having serious impacts in the context of
gender-based violence as well as masculinities. It has also
resulted in a general increase in violence against minority

Tuladhar calls for continued investment
in prevention and social norm changes – whether through
parenting programmes, or life skill programmes, or
comprehensive childhood education that addresses young girls
and boys in their gender norms formative years.

The UN
Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women
campaign, is one such multi-layer effort aimed at preventing
and eliminating violence against women and girls. It
amplifies the call for global action to bridge funding gaps,
ensure essential services for survivors of violence, even
during crises, focus on prevention, and collection of
reliable data to develop evidence based policies and
programmes to end all kinds of violence against women-be it
sexual, physical or emotional.

Shobha Shukla is the
award-winning founding Managing Editor of CNS (Citizen News
Service and is a feminist, health and development justice
advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of Loreto
Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific
Media Network to end TB & tobacco and prevent NCDs
(APCAT Media). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read
her writings here

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