By Stacey Schamber

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world locking people down in their homes, another pandemic has also taken hold. The levels of domestic violence, primarily against women and children, have soared globally. Sadly, for women living in already fragile and conflict affected settings, the phenomenon of violence is not new, but the scale of it now, combined with the limited responses available has been a profound challenge.

In April 5 the UN Secretary General issued a call to nations globally to prevent violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic. These issues were highlighted early on in the weekly zoom calls that ICAN has been hosting for its partners in the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL).  From Latin America to Asia, women peacebuilders have been the first to respond to the crisis in their own communities adapting their peacebuilding approaches to tackle the dual challenges of COVID-19 and domestic violence.

Across the range of countries, women peacebuilders consistently identified the issues of rising domestic violence and the need for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in light of this pandemic. In response ICAN facilitated two separate sessions on these topics to support in-depth analysis, cross regional exchange of learning and best practices, and strategic discussion. We also shared presentations of key analysis and resources regarding domestic violence and MHPSS during the COVID-19 pandemic.

18 peacebuilders from 13 countries attended the domestic violence session. They are noting increased domestic and interpersonal violence in their contexts including honor killings, early marriage, and femicide. They expressed concern about the lack of shelter space, and that governments and courts are either closed or not functioning. For instance, in Iraq, the government does not consider gender-based violence cases an emergency, while many states like Egypt do not have sufficient laws to address violence against women, so there is no legal recourse or system of state protection for victims.

In addition to the increased tension and stress within families resulting from lockdowns, the pandemic has raised additional barriers to accessing services for survivors of violence. Where women are displaced from their homes or in need of medical care, they face concerns about COVID-19 infection from providers, preventing them from entering hospitals and shelters compounding the experience of stigma. The religious and cultural contexts which condone social norms of gender inequality and tolerate violence against women contribute to lack of family and social support for survivors and push back against reform efforts.

Women peacebuilders have responded to these concerns in a variety of ways, depending on the context and the legal and protection framework available (read more in our weekly WASL call summaries). They offer counseling and psychosocial support both online and in case management centers, provide legal aid and representation, establish hotlines, and raise awareness about domestic violence through multiple media platforms. In Morocco counselors convene in an online platform to collaborate and lobby the government through media messaging and for legal authorization to move women to safe spaces. One partner in Iraq uses religious dialogue with the men to influence their behavior and participates in a family visitor program, along with the police and health department, to offer support where there are high cases of violence.

ICAN has created document to advocate for gendered responses to domestic violence with specific recommendations for governments. Noting the global call initiated by the UN, WASL members recognize the long term structural, legal and cultural shifts that are needed. But they also identified immediate steps that their governments can and should take.

Governments should:

  • Include GBV cases as emergencies and deem shelters and domestic violence organizations as essential services
  • Integrate services into emergency response including legal services and access to justice
  • Provide economic relief to those in need
  • Increase access to technology
  • Exchange best practices and engage in diplomacy to influence one another

The MHPSS session was attended by 13 peacebuilders from 10 countries who expressed concern about the psychological and emotional impact of ongoing conflict and COVID-19 on themselves and their communities. Many states like Iraq and Yemen, whose healthcare systems have been decimated from years of war, do not have the capacity to provide long term mental health care. The economic toll of this crisis resulting in loss of livelihoods and increasing poverty has contributed to people’s suffering, food insecurity, and barriers to access much needed resources. Fears and misinformation about COVID-19 prohibit people from going to hospitals and healthcare clinics to access care. Concerns about interpersonal violence compel discussion on the services needed for women and men to respond to the gendered impacts of this crisis.

Despite barriers of access to technology and cultural stigma, women peacebuilders have provided online MHPSS services and information to raise awareness about COVID-19 and mental health concerns. Local organizations have enabled women who are illiterate and have never used technology to connect with each other via online platforms which increased their awareness of psychological wellbeing, how to care for themselves and enhanced their connection with other women. One participant commented, “I now feel positive energy and I am stronger due to your presence, as I feel that there are those who feel for me and who teach me important and beneficial matters.”  Indeed, many members of WASL who participate in weekly calls express feeling stronger and supported through the exchange of experience.

They also voiced concern about the risks they face, both to COVID-19 as frontline responders and to secondary traumatization from providing MHPSS services. It remains critical to practice self-care not as a luxury but as a healthy way of life to sustain ourselves, create a positive culture within our organizations, and remain capable of caring for our communities.

Members of WASL will continue to explore opportunities for advocacy, exchanging knowledge and skill building across the network, and protecting the self-care and wellbeing of women peacebuilders.  ICAN will continue to provide resources and offer technical support on MHPSS and self-care.

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