Violence against girls and women risks being COVID-19’s invisible catastrophe

17 APRIL 2020

Evidence from COVID-19 affected countries and research into girls in other recent crises suggests an impending invisible catastrophe.

The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls and young women across the world will have devastating effects on all areas of their lives.  

As more and more people are confined to their homes in government-mandated lockdowns, rapidly rising rates of violence against girls and women are causing an invisible catastrophe. In many countries affected by the outbreak, there have been reports of huge increases in calls to domestic violence helplines, of demand for shelters and safe spaces and of domestic violence reports to the police.

For many girls and women, home is not a safe space. As social structures are upended and millions of people are confined to their homes, significant stress is being placed on families. This can compound existing gender inequalities and cause a rise of violence within the home.

An invisible catastrophe for girls, women and young LGBTIQ+ people

Health impacts of the outbreak, combined with an increased economic burden on families and communities, also contribute to this.  Children and young people who identify as LGBTQI+ are also at increased risk as they may be quarantined in homes or communities that are not accepting of their identity.  

To protect the rights of all girls and women during and following the coronavirus outbreak, it is crucial that governments ensure protection services remain central to all COVID-19 responses.

Social isolation measures mean that girls and women are increasingly cut off from vital social networks. They often face barriers in accessing essential services which support those at risk of violence, such as safe spaces and helplines. They may also have limited access to police and justice services, with disruption to law enforcement services as well as lack of access to legal remedies.

As has often been the case with previous health emergencies, there’s concern that protection services are at risk of being withdrawn or diverted towards fighting COVID-19. This includes services that are vital for responding to the needs of girls and women, such as case management, health services, mental health and psychosocial support services.  

As countries struggle with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and health care systems begin to strain under the pressure, funding and services from other sectors, including protection, will be deprioritised. This lack of services, coupled with an increase in gender-based violence, will be disastrous for girls and young women needing support.

Our research shows girls and young women are at risk

Plan International’s research shows us that, during crises, adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable.  Experiencing crisis during their formative years can disrupt all aspects of girls’ lives. This includes their nutrition, education, safety, sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as their ability to be active citizens.

It can have life-long impacts on their health, wellbeing and livelihoods. Our study following the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014 showed that factors related to economic pressures and disruption to education contributed to a rise in sexual exploitation of girls and young women. Many of these are now being replicated during the coronavirus outbreak.    

During crises, girls and young women are often expected to take up additional caregiving duties for the household or to find ways to provide income for their family.  Rates of sexual violence may increase as they take on work selling goods or they may be sexually exploited in order to provide food and money for their families. Child, early and forced marriage also increases as lack of access to education limits girls’ options.  In humanitarian contexts, as communities face further erosion of already weak protection structures, girls, especially those from marginalised communities and with disabilities, may be particularly hard hit.  

To protect the rights of all girls and women during and following the coronavirus outbreak, it is crucial that governments ensure protection services remain central to all COVID-19 responses. They must be recognised as essential services and continue to be funded adequately throughout all stages of the outbreak response. It is vital that gender and age concerns are taken into account when developing any response plans, so that the unique needs of girls are met. 

Services must also be adapted to adjust to the impacts of the outbreak. This includes switching to remote forms of services provision and support such as telephone counselling and hotlines and radio campaigns. These services must be available to girls in a language format they understand and through channels that they trust. 

Girls are largely invisible in the response yet are often the most affected. In this global crisis, the stakes are too high, girls cannot be left behind in the COVID-19 response. Their needs must be met; their voices must be heard and their protection must be prioritised.