Third Webinar 2020

June 29, 2020

Webinar Series Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations

“Violence Against Women in the Time of COVID-19”

On June 29, 2020, the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations (CFBO) hosted its third webinar on the issue of “Violence Against Women in the Time of COVID-19”. The webinar was attended by 250 participants from all over the world and included academics, experts, members of religious organizations, NGOs, students and people interested in learning about this issue. The webinar was hosted by Dr. Michael Platzer, Co-Chair of CFBO and had a panel of seven powerful women leaders: Dubravka Šimonovic, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women; Shahin Ashraf, Head of Global Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide; Sakena Yacoobi, Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning; Ugoji Eze, Founded the Eng Aja Eze Foundation; Fatma Ismetova Usheva, Researcher, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); Vesna Nikolić-Ristanović, Belgrade University; Director Victimology Society Serbia and Anna Alvazzi del Frate, Chair The Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

The CFBO has been hosting a string of webinars to explore and understand the issues of crime and justice and the role that Faith-Based Organizations could play in finding solutions. The June 29 webinar focused on understanding the consequences of the pandemic, the lockdowns, social distancing, work from home, and distance education on violence against women (VAW). The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted not only the many challenges we face in the fight against VAW but has also uncovered several hidden problems of VAW that need to be urgently addressed.

The highlights of the points made by the distinguished speakers in the webinar include the following:

Dr. Dubravka Simonovic, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women:

Dr. Simonovic works extensively in producing country reports on the response towards gender-based violence against women and girls. She focused on the important messages related to violence against women and girls (VAWG), the protection of victims and the prosecution of perpetrators. VAW is also a pandemic without borders which has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and will remain a challenge even after the world recovers from it. On March 27, 2020, Dr. Dubravka had issued a call to all United Nations (UN) Member States to uphold the international treaties concerning VAW during this time, especially regarding domestic violence.

Home can be a very dangerous place for some and data collected pre-COVID-19 shows that for every 10 intimate partner killings, more than eight are women. In the States that do have 24/7 helplines, some States are reporting a 30% increase in calls during this pandemic. Other States are not reflecting any increase in VAW which may also indicate that women at home are afraid to make calls. There is a need to make available other contact possibilities like SMS messages, or special “help-codes” women can mention at pharmacies. Dr. Simonovic also referred to good practices where some States have arranged hotels as shelters for women during this pandemic, announced protection orders that were not there before, and some States have issued orders for e-protection that can be done online.

Dr. Simonovic was earlier invited by the Executive Committee of the UN Secretary-General (SG) to participate in a meeting organized by the Secretary-General and different UN agencies to discuss what the UN as a whole is doing with respect to VAWG during this pandemic. At the meeting the UNSG launched an appeal for “Peace at Home”. Dr. Simonovic is currently working to produce a report that focuses on domestic violence against women during the COVID pandemic that will be presented at the October session of the UN General Assembly this year.

Dr. Simonovic emphasized that there is a need to reexamine what were the gaps before COVID-19 pandemic, what were the challenges imposed by the pandemic and how to proceed with the measures needed to fight VAWG. It is important to look at the evolving responsibilities of states and all other stakeholders, and especially to see how Faith-Based organizations send messages that focus on prevention of violence and protection of victims.

Ms. Shahin Ashraf, Head of Global Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide:

Ms. Ashraf’s opening statement was on the positive relationships between spirituality and commitment to social justice advocacy and willingness to take individual action to combat injustice. Muslim clerics have issued “fatwas” that emphasize on the government regulations regarding the halting of religious ceremonies during this pandemic.

The Islamic Relief Worldwide works in 43 countries around the world and it is clear that too little has been done to ensure that women are involved in decision-making processes. This is translated into the COVID-19 pandemic and its response which is not gender neutral. Viruses do not discriminate, it is the societies and systems that do where, for example, care work performed by women is undervalued, underpaid and often invisible. Women already undertake three times as much unpaid care work as men. This pandemic has led to plummeting health access and services particularly for women and girls. There has also been an increase in the Incidents of attacks on health workers, 70% of whom are women, as part of resistance to the COVID-related health measures that governments have imposed, such as testing or quarantining. For women in particular, who are already facing greater economic insecurity and caring responsibilities, a spike in domestic abuse is yet another stain on their lives. The rise in the number of deaths within the UK now averages three women being killed every week during this pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and the world view, deepening pre-existing inequalities, and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the negative impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls.

Ms. Ashraf then suggested solutions to combat this increasing problem. First and foremost, this pandemic shows the dire need of more women leaders in the health care sector. There is a need for an increase in fiscal stimulus and targeted financial support to businesses in sectors and women-led enterprises; and high quality, accessible services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. There is also a need for greater transparency and accountability of the criminal justice system through improved data provisioning.

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning:

Dr. Yacoobi’s first message was that this pandemic should make human beings look deep in their hearts about what should be done because the world is in dire need of a change. She acknowledged that it is a challenge but emphasized that Faith-Based organizations should work towards appreciating and respecting gender equality and promoting a sense of sharing and togetherness. The Afghanistan Institute for Learning (AIL) has 340 centers throughout Afghanistan where women are working in various activities. These women provide economic support for the family and are often the head of the household. However, during the pandemic, many husbands have lost their jobs which has created an environment of frustration and helplessness and led to an increase in the domestic violence and abuse of wife and children. The government is not focusing on the adverse effects of the pandemic.

AIL has six clinics that provide health and hygiene messages and is now focused on spreading the message of social distance and required safety measures. The closing down of many similar clinics due to the pandemic has now made AIL to also provide counselling to the abused women on how to talk with their husbands, take care of their children during these times and try to maintain a stable home environment. Some of the women from AIL’s Women Center are also working in the sewing factory preparing PPE material (masks and gowns) that are severely lacking in the country.

This pandemic has caused one of the biggest challenges of schools being shut down and children are now missing out on education. Children have no internet, no smartphone and no computer – how can one reach out to these children and protect these girls who cannot go to school anymore? There is an acute worry that this halt in education will force girls into early child marriage and are easy target of domestic violence. In this regard, AIL is providing education packages that are delivered to the house but this has its own challenges: parents are not interested and don’t want to help in home education, or parents are not equipped with reading and writing tools to help educate children at home using these packages. Dr. Yacoobi spoke about how countries should work together to share resources with developing countries. She especially called out for help with strategizing and implementing a distance education program in countries that don’t have internet and children don’t have technical devices. Re-starting an adapted education system is vital to stop the practice of child marriage that is increasing during this time of COVID-19.

Dr. Yacoobi also brought to light the problem that has arisen from the 50,000 Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan. These refugees are coming from Iran and Pakistan where healthcare services are no longer provided due to COVID-19 and all these refugees are without any sort of resources. AIL is assisting these refugees by providing basic food supplies (lentil, rice, sugar, etc.). Dr. Yacoobi reiterated that not enough is being done on gender equality during the pandemic and stressed on the importance of creating an environment where the women and children feel safe and peaceful.

Dr. Ugoji Eze, Founded the Eng Aja Eze Foundation:

Barrister Eze began by focusing the discussion on the call for “Peace in our Homes” where the UN Secretary General said “…we are seeing a horrifying global surge in domestic violence. I urge all governments to make the prevention and redress of VAW a key part of our national response plan for COVID-19.” The “Shadow Pandemic” of VAWG is emerging at an alarming rate where women are locked in with their perpetrators. Globally, according to UN Women, 243 million women and girls, aged 15-49, have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. Furthermore, COVID-19 has seen a tremendous underreporting of domestic violence. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates not only violence within the home but also other kinds of VAWG. It occurs across all regions and it knows no borders. There is a need to put refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons (IDP) at the forefront of the State’s response to VAW during COVID-19. Post COVID-19, the world needs to come out resilient and changed. Economic policies and regulations that do not take into account women’s role in economic and social welfare need to be changed. With the help of Faith-Based Organizations, this pandemic should be taken as an opportunity for governments to do things differently in the future where women are at the center of decision-making and gender equality concerns are covered in short-term responses and long term recovery to building an equal society.

Dr. Eze reminded us of the South African philosophy of “Ubuntu” which teaches that human beings cannot exist in isolation and speaks about interconnectedness, generosity and humanity towards others.

Dr. Fatma Ismetova Usheva, Researcher:

Dr. Usheva had prepared a brief presentation on what UNODC and the Trends and Analysis Branch are doing in relation to data for VAW to analyze the issue of VAW before, during and after the pandemic. In this regard, Member States have started to provide monthly statistics on: (i) Intentional homicide (number of victims) – by sex and by perpetrator (intimate partner or family member); (ii) Sexual Violence – Rape and Sexual Assault; and (iii) Hotline Data -Data has been collected from 21 countries (mainly the countries from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean) for the period October 2019-April 2020.

The initial result from this research shows that there has been a significant drop in the reporting of sexual assault and rape cases, as indicated by police records, during the months of March 2020 and April 2020. In country specific results, in Italy, the helpline data collected shows a huge increase in the number of calls per week during the lockdown period compared with the number of calls during the same time period in 2019. Yet, the number of reported sexual violence crimes had dramatically decreased during the lockdown. In Denmark, the lockdown period saw a slight decrease in the number of calls received by the helpline followed by an increase after the lockdown was lifted. There was a similar trend in the decrease of reported sexual violence crimes during the lockdown period in Denmark as in Italy. This contrasting data indicates how there is a need to dig deeper to get a better understanding as data alone do not tell the entire picture. It is challenging to assess the impact of COVID-19 on VAW. Some data points increased, decreased or did not change during the lockdown period. These discrepancies in data are challenging to explain as different data sources could measure different types of violence.

Making a comparative analysis, Dr. Usheva underlined that while on the one hand, women may have been protected against sexual violence experienced in public spaces due to the lockdown and social distancing measures, on the other hand, there is a strong possibility that this current pandemic has led to an increase in domestic violence at home. In this regard, one must be very careful in the conclusions made and one must be aware of the specificities of the data reported. Data collection and analysis is vital in understanding the trends of VAWG. Here, Faith-Based Organizations have a huge role to play in generating relevant statistics in order to create better informed decision making and better informed policies. Dr. Usheva informed that the complete report and analysis of VAWG during the time of COVID-19 done by UNODC will be available next month on their website.

Dr. Prof. Vesna Nikolić-Ristanović, Belgrade U; Director Victimology Society Serbia:

Dr. Vesna focused the conversation on Serbia’s response to VAW during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the state of emergency and lockdown in Serbia, cases of VAW reported to the police decreased by about 50% compared to the same period last year. Also, during that time, there was one case of femicide, while during 2019 during the same period five women were killed. Decrease of reported cases could mirror the real decrease in VAW during lockdown, however it is more likely that women faced difficulties reaching hotlines and reporting crimes. Serbian authorities did not introduce any alternative possibility for reporting, such as online platforms, or via SMS, WhatsApp or Viber. There was a lack of clear communication from authorities that promised full protection to victims. Although NGOs offering support to women victims continued their activities, making their contact details online (rather than office telephones) and changing working hours made it difficult for women to reach them for help. Most NGOs offered support online, and through social media, Viber and WhatsApp. New working hours, channels of support and contact details of NGOs were put on the website of the Ministry of Justice, but women were unaware of these changes. Though NGOs offered COVID-19 related information and support, they had to stop some services, such as financial support, direct counseling, support at the court, legal aid etc.
Dr. Vesna spoke about the continued work done by the Victimology Society of Serbia (VDS) on victim support, research, advocacy and awareness raising. VDS also continued working with the publication of Temida, an academic journal on victimization, human rights and gender. During this period, VDS started preparations for its policy oriented research “Sexual violence at the universities in Serbia: Raising awareness and developing innovative mechanisms of victim support”, for which it is financed through the award received from the World Bank and Sexual Violence Research Initiative. VDS also started collection of data from Serbia for the European Observatory on Femicide.

Dr. Vesna concluded by highlighting the case of Marina Minic, 31 years old survivor of femicide, who became immobile as a consequence of violence. The current pandemic has postponed her expensive treatment scheduled in Thailand for May 2020 and has also halted the process of finding financing avenues for Ms. Minic’s surgery leaving her in desperate circumstances.

Dr. Anna Alvazzi del Frate, Chair, The Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention And Criminal Justice:

To understand the difficulties of getting information regarding VAW during this pandemic period and the difficulty in interpreting the limited information available, Dr. Alvazzi highlighted the useful document issued by the UN Women. The COVID-19 pandemic has worked as a magnifying glass for issues that need to be addressed urgently. It has underlined the fragility of certain communities and the difficulty of working on the “Leave No One Behind” Mandate of the Agenda 2030. It is not only gender inequality but an overall social inequality that has come out of this pandemic. Dr. Alvazzi spoke about how the Faith-Based Organizations can help the Alliance of NGOs on CPCJ in providing safe spaces where women can be interviewed for the collection of data. For better data collection, there is a need to work on greater integration of all stakeholders. To enforce and implement policies and crime prevention, apart from NGOs and civil society actors, there is a growing importance and a bigger role that has to be played by the Faith-Based Organizations.

Dr. Alvazzi also mentioned a useful tool titled, “How does it look when it’s fixed”. This involved an exercise conducted in South Africa where people could indicate what a safe community is and what are the actions needed to get there. Dr. Alvazzi also announced that one of the member groups of this alliance is working on the development of a program for a symposium on domestic violence and COVID-19. The clergy will also be involved in this symposium that will take place as a webinar in October 2020. The focus is on domestic violence where, when one gets the message that one must stay home but the home is not a safe place – what does it mean? It also talks about domestic violence on children as well as intergenerational domestic violence.

Concluding remarks:

In her closing remarks after all the panelists had spoken, Dr. Dubravka underlined that this panel showed that there is an immense challenge on how to properly assess the situation of VAWG, especially with respect to data. There are reports coming out that there is an increase of different forms of violence from the various data presented during the pandemic. There are different situations in different countries that are based on pre-existing inequalities and legislations. Dr. Dubravka also spoke about the “Femicide Watch” where, five years ago, she had encouraged States to start collecting data specifically on gender related killings of women, or femicide, which is further divided into categories or intimate partner killings, family related killings and other types of femicides. For those countries that have collected data in the past few years, there is now a possibility to look at what type of data is coming out during COVID-19. Dr. Dubravka is preparing a new report on sexual violence with a focus on rape for the Human Rights Council Session in July 2020. This report will talk about the need to criminalize marital rape, the need to define rape with respect to lack of consent and not only by the current definition involving use of force. Rape is the most underreported form of sexual violence with countries having limited legislations that complicate the reporting of sexual violence. There is a need to produce a UN system-wide clear road map on prevention and elimination of gender based violence and domestic violence for States, NGOs and Faith-Based Organizations.

Question & Answer Session:

During a brief Q&A session that followed the closing remarks, participants wanted to know whether there were any statistics regarding what happened to men during the COVID-19. Dr. Usheva said there were statistics for homicide during this pandemic and there was an increase in the number of homicides perpetrated by a family member. She also stated that more information was available in the report “Global Study on Homicide” produced by the UNODC in July 2019. Another participant wanted to know if the countries were separating homicide statistics and femicide statistics. According to Dr. Usheva, there was no current separation in statistics. There is information available regarding the perpetrators of the killings.

Dr. Eze wanted to ask Ms. Ashraf, if there had been any data collection specifically for the Black, Asian and Minority community and for VAWG during COVID-19 in the UK? Ms. Ashraf responded by stating that the UK Government had released a report on the black, minority and ethnic communities and data on VAWG during COVID-19 was still being collected. Ms. Ashraf also mentioned that while there are awareness raising campaigns, these campaigns do not target black and minority ethnic women and this is where a lot of the problem lies since resources don’t reach these communities.

The webinar also saw a lot of activity from the participants on the chat box and there was tremendous enthusiasm from the panel to continue the discussion. However, Dr. Platzer had to end the webinar as it was nearing the 90-minute mark. Dr. Walsh, Co-Chair of CFBO, announced the next webinar in this series to be conducted on July 28, 2020. This webinar will focus on the problems of racism, discrimination and the current protests taking place in the United States. The topic will be “In Search of Social Justice, Criminal Justice Reform and the Restoration of Solidarity and Trust in Our Communities”. As further announced by Dr, Platzer, another webinar will be held in August on the issue of prisons and the humane treatment of prisoners and offenders.

Links for further readings:

It was co-organized by KAICIID, the Coalition of Faith-Based OrganizationsUNODC and partners.

Article by Yashodhana Raj


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