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Illustration by Security Management

Pandemic Intensifies Violence, Poverty, and Inequality Borne by Women

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2021 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka gavelled the session into order and proceeded to describe the immense challenge.

“The pandemic has been especially hard on women and girls,” she said. “This is the most discriminatory crisis we have ever experienced. It has hit hardest those who are least able to cope. It has posed a direct challenge to our work as the United Nations and the work of UN Women. The gains we have made in the past are at risk.”

Last week, Security Management reported on the World Health Organization’s just-released study on violence against women. The alarming report found that one in three women is a victim of physical or sexual violence. The study is based on data collected between 2000 and 2018, and the report itself notes that the conditions presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated an already unacceptable reality: “Measures taken to address the pandemic, such as lockdown and distancing rules, have led to an increase in reports of domestic violencein particular intimate partner violence against womento helplines, police forces, and other service providers.”

A study conducted by the RAND Corporation for the European Institute for Gender Equality, The Covid-19 pandemic and intimate partner violence against women in the EU, highlighted the strain the pandemic put on systems designed to support women subjected to intimate partner violence (IPV). At the same time that support services were learning how to work remotely, demand for helplines, counseling services, and shelter accommodation was surging. The report noted that while many EU countries addressed the issue of IPV with planning and programmatic changes, virtually none of the changes included funding to support them.

The study also highlighted several promising practices that a few EU countries enacted: “contingency plans, examples of cross-sectoral cooperation, and the allocation of additional funding to support the transition of helplines to a remote working model and ensure that victims could access support in a discreet manner.” In addition, it noted some ad hoc measures that showed a creative approach to a unique and difficult situation, such as an Irish partnership with Airbnb that provided free emergency accommodations.

A blog post written by two of the report’s researchers concludes that “despite extensive research indicating that surges in the prevalence and severity of domestic violence consistently follow public health crises including pandemics, natural disasters, and recessions, EU countries were not prepared and, in most cases, responded only once the scale of the problem was made clear through the lobbying work of domestic violence support services.”

Security Management first covered domestic violence in relation to the pandemic in July 2020. In that article, Kimberly Brunell with Control Risks’ Crisis Security and Consulting practice described the signs that an employee may be enduring domestic violence and why it should matter to employers.

More recently, “Stalkerware Fuels Technology-Enabled Abuse” examined how technology and the Internet of Things are tools easily abused by perpetrators of IPV. In “Answering to Abuse,” Security Management explored how spotting and responding to possible IPV has changed as a result of work-from-home arrangements.

In another development, Sunday marked the release of new app in Israel described by Reuters with the headline “Women crowd-source their own security on Tel Aviv’s streets.” The app, called SafeUp, allows women who feel threatened to share their location with a list of contacts she provides in advance and can connect someone in distress with specially trained volunteer guardians who are within a third of a mile. That Israel is not known as a country that is particularly unsafe for women underscores the pervasiveness of the threat of violence.

While IPV is a major issue made worse by the pandemic, as Mlambo-Ngcuka noted in her address to open the UN Commission, it is not the only one. She estimated an increase of approximately 10 million girls who would be subject to child marriage, with most of them dropping out of school permanently. She cited a study that reported nearly 60 percent of women said the amount of unpaid domestic labor they must perform has increased as a result of the pandemic and that two-thirds of all job losses have been jobs that were held by women. She noted that the digital gender gap has widened and that 47 million more women will be thrust into severe poverty situations.

Despite the potentially dire situation, she pointed to a solution, if only society can muster the political will: “It is inconceivable that we can address this situation that is faced in the main by women and solve the problems that women and girls face without the women themselves taking part in decision making.”

“We currently confront the two biggest challenges of our generation: the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, and the unfolding climate change crisis. In both, women are disproportionately affected,” she said. “And in neither are women appropriately represented as negotiators and policy makers. In a recent survey of COVID-19 task forces, we found that less than 5 percent of those task forces had gender parity in the composition of their membership. This gives men the self-imposed, impossible task of making the right decisions about women without the benefit of women’s insights. This needs to be set right without delay or we stand to lose. …

“Other reports tell us that in key public sectors, including those where women dominate, such as in health, men continued to hold most of the leadership positionsas high as 70 percentmarking no change over the previous year. In the private sector, the situation is even worse. The stereotypes that men are more capable leaders persists, and this we also need to change. Closely connected to this is the fact that women remain deeply under-represented in news media both as editors controlling content and perspective, and as subject matter experts. …

“Neither the pandemic nor the financial crisis should be deterrents to making progress in the representation of women. In fact, quite the opposite, the pandemic shows us how much we need the change so that we can build back better. Representation of women in decision making is the only way to build back in a gender-responsive manner, in an equitable manner and in a greener manner.”