As we near the end of the year, the Philippines, as many other countries in the world, has been in quarantine for more than nine months to stave off a global pandemic that has stolen lives, mobility, precious time for education and economic security from millions of people. The end is not yet in sight.
In a July 23, 2020, Op-Ed that I wrote, I said that “one of the most insidious consequences of the pandemic is the rise of gender-based violence (GBV). Children and adolescents, particularly girls, are confronted with violence and abuse, as a result of prolonged lockdowns.” We recently marked the intensive 18-Day Campaign to End Violence Against Women, a global call to action, and a powerful reminder that our work to end GBV is unfinished.
For survivors of gender-based violence locked down in their homes with an abuser, the COVID-19 pandemic is only one of the compounding crises that threaten their physical and mental health. Even before this global health crisis, violence against women (VAW) was plaguing 1 out of every 4 Filipinas who is married or has been married at least once in their lives. We know the incidence and numbers escalate during disasters but one can only estimate what impact this might have on the whole country. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that there had been a 20 percent increase in domestic violence globally. A study commissioned by UNFPA approximates that intimate partner violence will increase by 16 percent in the country. By the end of the year, there will be an estimated 839,000 women who are married or who has been married at least once in their lives who would experience GBV during this pandemic.
It is our moral responsibility to elevate the plight and needs of GBV survivors even as we talk about the perils and risks of COVID-19. We have growing evidence however that we may be failing individuals most at risk of GBV during this pandemic. UNFPA’s State of World Population Report revealed that around the globe, from 2020 to 2030, there could be an additional 13 million girls under 18 who would marry, resulting from the disruption of programs and services, and economic challenges brought by COVID-19. When parents in low-income families are unable to find jobs, the deepening poverty bought by the pandemic can push families to consider marrying off their daughters in the hopes of a better life for their children.
We also know that perpetrators and human traffickers are taking advantage of the economic hardships of families. In the Philippines, where 73 million Filipinos, or some 67 percent of the population, use social media, the Internet is a platform for cybercriminals preying on women and young people. In particular, social media provides much room for abusers to engage in sexual exploitation of women and young people behind closed doors and in front of a webcam. Gender-based online sexual harassment continues to rise especially targeting young women and girls. Widespread are rape jokes, rape threats, and other sexist remarks that negatively impact women and girls. It is important to note that gender-based online sexual harassment is punishable by law, under RA 11313, the Safe Spaces Act.
We cannot sacrifice or endanger vulnerable survivors by rendering them invisible, minimizing, or denying their pleas for help and assistance. The Commission on Human Rights has received reports that requests for rescue and assistance from GBV survivors were allegedly dismissed by local duty-bearers. This despite a series of policy issuances requiring and mandating the continuity of GBV services – medical management of rape, mental health and psycho-social services, legal services, safety planning and case management, safety or security services, and/ or residential shelter.
UN Mandate and Call to Action
The Philippine government, the United Nations agencies, and civil society organizations have forged strong partnerships in combatting VAW with renewed vigor, harnessing our collective tools, intelligence, and resources to adapt, innovate, and continue to ensure that GBV services will be available to survivors when they need it.
For example, UNFPA, with its implementing partner Coalition Against Trafficking of Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), designed six Gender-Based Violence (GBV) digital training modules as part of capacity-building projects in BARMM. Such modules have been presented and used with local partners in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur, and have received incredible reception. As an expansion of this project, the modules are now part of the certification courses on Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation’s iADAPT e-learning platform. This move will strengthen and expand the GBV response capacity in humanitarian settings.
Similarly, in partnership with the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development , UNFPA held an online concert to call on the public’s support to ask our duty bearers for the continuity of life saving care and support to GBV survivors amid emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In other initiatives, the Philippine Commission on Women, DSWD, CHR, UNFPA, Oxfam, and PLAN International organized a Data Roundtable that will map out how VAW data is collected across multiple agencies and consolidated to generate an analysis of how survivors utilize VAW services and where the possible gaps in the delivery system are. Better data gathered can lead to better programming and service provision. GBV and COVID19 heatmaps can identify where GBV and COVID19 cases are converging to direct and maximize human and financial resources to where the highest incidence of reports might be. Or also an indication where GBV reporting is limited and outreach and awareness-raising might be more helpful.
In the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) region, there is continuous, productive, and assured coordination and collaboration among multi-sectoral agencies and organizations to strengthen their GBV response and prevention education systems. Co-led by UNICEF and UNFPA, more than 30 organizations work closely with the Ministry of Social Service and Development (MSSD) to respond rapidly to emerging and dynamic cases of GBV such as internally displaced women fleeing armed clan feuds or returning migrants from Sabah. Whoever is in need, their coordination table works to ensure that their traumatic experiences are met with psycho-social support, life-saving goods, and essential services.
This year we also commemorate the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. The provisions of the resolution are classified into “three Ps”: protection of the human rights of women and girls during times of conflict, prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, and equal participation of women in peacebuilding and reconstruction. In BARMM, UN agencies provide technical assistance and support in pushing women’s meaningful participation in and contributions to the process and substance of peace and security decision-making will improve the chances of attaining viable and sustainable peace.
This increased GBV incidence and need for stronger attention on GBV cases coincide in a year where the United Nations system celebrates two significant milestones: the 25th anniversary of the Beijing 4th World Conference on Women’s Rights and the 75th anniversary of the UN. These celebrations can be important reminders to the international community, rights holders, and duty-bearers that our work remains unfinished AND that we have the tools that we need to do better – to assure that GBV services continue no matter the disaster, that vulnerable women and girls will receive life-saving information and protection commodities as they need it.
The United Nations is doubling down and renewing our commitment to Ending GBV, targeting Zero Harmful Practices to Women and Girls by 2030. We will not waver in this commitment and continue to ensure that vigorous prevention and response systems are a hallmark of the COVID19 response in this country and beyond.