Celebrated on 25 November, this year’s theme for International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is ‘Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect’, focused on bridging funding gaps, providing essential services to survivors, preventing violence and collecting information to improve life-saving services.
According to the United Nations (UN), gender-based violence (GBV) disproportionately affects women and girls. Violence against women (VAW) includes physical, sexual and psychological violence and harassment, female genital mutilation (FGM), and human trafficking.
Many individual, family, community and society-level factors contribute to VAW, according to the World Health Organization. Gender inequality and the normalization of violence are primary factors.
Certain groups are also more susceptible to GBV, including racialized communities, LGBTQ women, migrants and refugees, and disabled women. For example, in Canada, Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to go missing or be murdered than other women.
Unsurprisingly, violence against women and girls around the world intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic in what UN Women calls the Shadow Pandemic. This was evidenced by increased sexual harassment and violence in public spaces and online and the diversion of resources from violence against women responses to COVID-19 relief.
UN Women also noted that there had been increases in calls to domestic violence helplines. Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline received over 20,000 calls between 1 October and 31 December 2020 compared to 12,352 over the same period the previous year, according to Yvonne Harding, a manager at the organization.
Dubinski and Margison (2020), reporting for CBC, cited a survey by the Ending Violence Association of Canada, which stated that 82 per cent of respondents felt violence had become more frequent. A fifth believed that abusers’ control over victims had increased.
Similarly, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability noted that 160 women and girls were killed by violence in 2020, a sharp increase from 118 in 2019.
Mittal and Singh (2020) presented similar evidence in a study in India, noting “an alarming rise in the incidents of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic”. They found that pandemics historically break down social infrastructures, which leads to an increase in violence.
Similarly, Bradbury-Jones and Isham (2020) found that lockdowns and quarantine rendered women and girls more vulnerable to violence as they could not escape their abusers.
Erin Whitmore, executive director of the Ending Violence Association of Canada, told CBC that there must be stable funding for organizations to support women and girls and systemic change to address the root causes of violence.
To this end, Canada developed a national strategy to end GBV in 2017. It has three main pillars:
Supporting survivors and families
Promoting responsive legal and justice systems
In addition, the minister for Women and Gender Equality has an advisory council comprising community leaders, academics, youth and survivors who can speak to specific issues faced by women from different backgrounds. The council provides insight into developing a national action plan to end violence. It is currently focusing on responding to the impacts of the pandemic.
“COVID reflects the crack of the social system and how systematic oppression plays out”, Elene Lam, a member of the advisory council, said. As the founder and executive director of the Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, Lam also provides input on the experiences of sex workers.
She said that sex work (distinct from human trafficking) is often the only work available for women from marginalized communities but that the criminalization of sex work leaves women vulnerable to experiencing violence.
“The policy is to end the sex industry, but that is not protecting the women’s rights”, Lam said.
Echoing Whitmore’s call for systemic change, Lam said the root causes of VAW can be found within structures of oppression. She said many of Butterfly’s clients endure abuse and violence because they fear losing their immigrant or migrant status if they go to the police.
“The policies and the law make the people stay in vulnerable situations”, Lam said.
“The criminalization and stigma are the main reasons they cannot protect themselves”, Lam said.
Besides structural changes, UN Women says that individuals can also take action against VAW to help achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality. The organization listed ten ways:
Listen to and believe survivors
Teach the next generation and learn from them
Call for responses and services fit for purpose
Learn the signs of abuse and how to help
Stand against rape culture
Fund women’s organizations
Hold each other accountable
Know the data and demand more research
By participating in International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and becoming more aware of how VAW affects women from various backgrounds, Canadians can help bring the Shadow Pandemic to light.
With global action, increased awareness and stigmatization of GBV, women and girls can live safer and more free lives. The SDG goal to “leave no one behind” can only be achieved after ending violence against women and girls.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha