By Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Country Director for Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka
Niranjala’s (name changed) husband started physically abusing her soon after they got married.
When she was about to file for a divorce, the pandemic struck. Confined within the house during lockdowns, she suffered abuse almost daily to the point of being hospitalized. The husband was later arrested.
A staggering two out of five women in South Asia have experienced intimate partner violence. And COVID-19 has worsened the situation.
Women and children are more likely to experience violence within the four walls of their homes due to movement restrictions imposed during lockdowns. They are no longer able to step outside to seek assistance and support. Women were not able to leave their homes to call a gender-based violence (GBV) hotline or access health or legal services.
Most women bear with the abuse as they are economically dependent on their husbands or fear for the safety of their children. Sometimes they ultimately report the abuse only when they are utterly desperate.
In Nepal, 23 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence. During the pandemic, a 24-hour toll-free helpline run by Nepal’s National Women Commission (NWC) received 885 calls related to domestic violence from April to June, twice compared to previous years. With parents unable to work due to the pandemic, adolescent girls also face an increased risk of early marriages, child abuse, and human trafficking.
In Maldives, one in four women has experienced some form of violence during her lifetime. In Sri Lanka, the Women’s wellbeing survey states that 17 percent of women have experienced domestic violence. During the pandemic, hospitals observed an increase in female patients with domestic violence-related injuries, and hotlines reported an increase in GBV calls. According to the National Child Protection Authority, reports of child cruelty have increased by 30 percent.
Across all three countries, civil society organizations also report that lesbian and bisexual women and transgender people, who already faced stigma and discrimination before the pandemic, are now even more vulnerable to violence at home , including honor killings, “corrective” rape, conversion therapy, and forced marriages. Service providers often overlook these victims as they’re usually unaware that domestic violence also occurs in relationships among sexual and gender minorities.
In recent years, the World Bank has stepped up its efforts to address GBV risks, through investments, research and learning, and collaboration with stakeholders, particularly in infrastructure, human development, and education projects.
In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the World Bank supported the Ministry of Health, and its implementing agencies, to increase GBV psychosocial support and emergency medical services.
Relevant training and resources to help frontline health workers respond to GBV via referral structures were critical. The agencies set up protocols and guidelines to screen and reduce risks in health centers, quarantine facilities, and women’s shelters. Communication campaigns were also developed to appeal to abusers to stop and encourage survivors to reach out to online services.
In Nepal, emergency COVID-19 health and education projects have joined efforts to develop explicit GBV prevention and child-protection response action plans. The Health Ministry’s One-Stop Crisis Management Center has launched a grievance helpline managed by a focal person who offers guidance on handling GBV calls and operational guidelines.
The education project has recently developed community outreach campaigns through radio, posters, and consultations to prevent GBV, teenage pregnancy, and early school drop-outs among girls due to lockdowns.
Additionally, Nepal’s Khabar Garaun (Inform Us) helpline support provides first-hand support to GBV survivors during the pandemic due to disruptions of pre-existing referral services. The World Bank supports Khabar Garaun under its Integrated Platform for Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response.
Each year during the 16 days of activism against GBV, we join our partners to advocate and share knowledge on ending the scourge of gender-based violence in South Asia and beyond.
However, a more consistent approach is needed to stamp out emerging GBV issues and sustain progress. To build a world with equality, inclusion, and non-violence, we need to start within homes, communities, and societies, as domestic violence is a part of a continuum of violence, leading to other forms of violence in these spheres.
We must also invest in working with men and boys to change their harmful attitudes towards women, including women who are sexual and gender minorities, and ensure they are held accountable for their actions.
Additionally, increased multisectoral responses accessible for women, men and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) people within communities, primary healthcare facilities or online should be made available.
Moving forward, I encourage all stakeholders to invest more fully in keeping safe women, girls, and those who identify as women.
GBV costs us our humanity and jeopardizes the safety of women and children. It is not only devastating for survivors of violence and their families, but also entails significant social and economic costs.
The World Bank is committed to working together with all our stakeholders to end gender-based violence in all its forms.
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