Op-Ed: End the pandemic of violence against women

This is an opinion editorial by Vandana Sharma, a global health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Isabela Salgado, a senior policy associate in the Crime, Violence, and Conflict sector at J-PAL Global.

Violence against women and girls increases during periods of crisis. So it should come as no surprise that Covid-19 has added to the risk of increased gender-based violence. Even before the pandemic, one in three women worldwide reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner. But by confining women at home with their abusers, pandemic-related lockdowns have increased their exposure to violence. Lockdowns have also contributed to economic stress, and diminished women’s access to the resources and support systems that help them escape abusive relationships.

In April 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for action to address gender-based violence during the pandemic. This call was supported by 146 countries. That same month, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that every three months of lockdown would result in an extra 15 million cases of violence against women and girls.

Eighteen months later, there is evidence that governments responded to Guterres’ appeal. In the United States, for example, millions of dollars in pandemic-relief spending are being directed to strengthen urgently needed resources—such as shelters, psychological services, and housing assistance—that address the immediate needs of women experiencing violence.

But to end violence against women and girls requires effective prevention strategies that target its root causes. Such programmes address pervasive inequalities and power differentials—especially gender norms that justify and normalise violence against women and girls.

There are plenty of examples of effective and proven approaches to preventing violence against women that can be implemented even during a global pandemic. A large body of evidence—including best practises and robust assessments generated over several decades—demonstrates which approaches work best. In particular, randomised impact evaluations can guide decisions on how to build healthy, violence-free populations.

One type of effective, evidence-based approach is facilitated gender dialogues. These conversations help men and women examine and challenge inequitable gender norms and roles, and practice relationship skills in safe spaces. One such programme in Ethiopia, called Unite for a Better Life (UBL), was conducted within the context of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a traditional forum for community-based discussion.

A randomised evaluation showed that UBL can reduce intimate partner violence by up to 50 percent when delivered to groups of men. UBL led to more equitable relationships, including greater joint decision-making, men’s involvement in domestic tasks like cooking and childcare, and increased communication between partners on sensitive topics like sexuality. The benefits of the programme spread beyond participating households. Positive effects, including reduced violence, were observed even among community members who had not joined UBL sessions. This research shows just how crucial it is to include men in prevention efforts.

Other promising approaches include school-based curricula, microfinance or savings and loans programmes to empower women, and social-marketing or media interventions. The latter include radio and television programming in the form of “edutainment,” which integrates social-change messages into storylines. Randomised evaluations have shown that edutainment can reduce acceptance of violence against women and its incidence, while also encouraging reporting.

Media-based campaigns offer a low-cost way to reach many people remotely. For example, UBL’s podcast-based adaptation was designed for humanitarian crises where people may be on the move and unable to join in-person sessions. Additional work is needed to understand how other programmes can be adapted effectively to help people in times of crisis, like the pandemic; but the existing evidence offers a place to start.

There is no time to waste. Policymakers need to use the available evidence to expand effective prevention programmes and support their adaptation to new contexts. To end violence against women, governments must do more than provide support for survivors. They must invest in and implement effective violence-prevention programmes that challenge harmful gender norms and promote healthy, equitable relationships.


Source: The Daily Star

Illustration: Noor Us Safa Anik

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