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

"There 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 months.

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 well.

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 inequalities.

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 information.

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

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 telephonically.

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 way.

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 Philippines.

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 place.

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 difficult.

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 spaces.

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 communities.

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 www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla

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