Twelve months ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women – a neglected by-product of COVID-19 lockdown measures – and the world body announced it was releasing emergency funds to fight the scourge globally.
But if the more intense media coverage helped to generate a greater awareness of the problem, it is yet to translate into a significant jolt in funding for those at the sharp end. It has been more than a year since Guterres made that speech, and many victims of gender-based violence have seen no tangible change in support.
Needs, meanwhile, have been growing fast.
In its 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview, published last week, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, estimated that for every three months that COVID-19 lockdowns continue, roughly 15 million additional cases of GBV are committed. And this week, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, condemned “alarming” rates of gender-based violence in Central America, citing it as a driver of much of the migration from the region.
“My greatest fear is that women like her may end up dead.”
According to the latest UN data, financing to combat GBV has remained flat, hovering at around one percent of all humanitarian assistance, comparable to estimates for 2019. “It is very concerning, and at the moment there seems to be no promise that the funding [outlook] will improve,” Annalisa Brusati, child and youth protection coordinator at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told The New Humanitarian.
The situation is critical in much of Latin America, where Yuri Armando Mamani Hancco has been confronting the problem as coordinator of Peru’s national GBV programme in Puno, the capital of the region of the same name that has the country’s worst record for sexual violence.
At a government-run women’s aid centre in Puno in late October, the programme coordinator said there wasn’t a single shelter for victims of gender-based violence in the entire region – which comprises an area larger than Sri Lanka.
With GBV funding often redirected by local administrations into different aid programmes, money is in such short supply that there isn’t even enough to insulate the walls of the main regional support centre so women seeking help can do so without others listening in.
As Mamani Hancco spoke to The New Humanitarian, a woman sitting in an adjacent room could clearly be heard describing the violence she had endured in her home at the hands of her husband while her children watched on. She was also audible from the street.
The programme coordinator expressed his concern over this lack of privacy, as well as about all the other assistance missing due to the funding situation – including the shortage of trained therapists. “My greatest fear is that women like her may end up dead,” he said.
Emergency funding in slow motion
All around the region – from Central America to Venezuela and Colombia – conflict, climate displacement, and mass migration are exposing more and more women to situations where they are vulnerable to sexual violence, especially due to the added confines of the pandemic
But in Latin American countries already beset by humanitarian crises, sparse GBV data collection makes it difficult to assess where problem hotspots are, let alone to work out how to channel the kind of accelerated assistance envisioned by Guterres.
The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, known as CERF, has long provided urgent funding to programmes assisting vulnerable populations in crisis-hit countries. But GBV response funding has only been “mainstreamed” into humanitarian aid since late 2019 when OCHA convened its first ever pledging conference on gender-based violence.
The following year, a $100 million allocation from CERF for underfunded emergencies, including Colombia and Venezuela, provided a boost of $21.7 million earmarked for the global fight against gender-based violence. However, many programmes were put on hold when the pandemic erupted.
Last November’s announcement to provide $25 million in additional CERF money to 11 countries around the world was the first time rapid response funding from the UN had been directed exclusively towards combating violence against women.
At least 30 percent was to go to supporting women-led organisations over 24 months, with programmes to focus on positive gender-messaging and improving survivor response. However, a year later, The New Humanitarian found that little of this funding stream had actually been disbursed.
In Latin America, Colombia and Venezuela were the only countries chosen to receive the extra GBV support. Peru, along with the rest of the region, missed out on any CERF funding for GBV programming.
In mid-October, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) confirmed to The New Humanitarian the names of the 15 women-led NGOs that were to receive roughly 40 percent of Colombia’s $1.5 million in emergency GBV funding.
UNFPA, which was to disburse $17 million of the CERF funds – the other $8 million was to go through UN Women – said extensive discussions were carried out to identify the NGOs, which were spread across five regions in Colombia where displaced women were most affected.
The local organisations had to be vetted and assessed for needs before any support could flow. UNFPA said it had to examine their financial structures and operational capacities, and work out whether training – including administrative training to allow the groups to operate more independently – was required.
Three groups in the Colombian city of Cúcuta – the main regional hub for Venezuelan migrants – were chosen to receive funding. The money – aimed predominantly at helping migrant women, LGBTQI+ individuals, trafficking victims, and sex workers – was also to be spent on assessing needs and exploring the factors driving the spike in GBV.
Elsewhere, such as in La Guajira – further north along the Venezuelan border – and in Nariño and Chocó on Colombia’s western Pacific coast, organisations supporting Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women were also to be financed through the UNFPA.
The remaining 60 percent of CERF rapid response funding in Colombia – allocated separately from the support going to women-led groups – began to be disbursed earlier in the year. It was mostly going towards ensuring more safe spaces for women: UNFPA estimated that at least 6,000 women had been helped in this way by early November, while cash payments had also been made to women needing psychosocial support.
The New Humanitarian began questioning UNFPA in February. It was only in September that the UN agency shared a list of the NGOs most likely to receive funding. Eventually, in early November, a spokesperson said eight of the 15 organisations selected “had consolidated their work plans, and are in the process of receiving the funds”.
“We really welcome the funding,” said Verónica Simán, UNFPA’s representative in Colombia, underlining that the humanitarian crisis in the country is one of the world’s most underfunded. “When CERF funding was announced, $1 million sounded like a lot, but challenges and needs are immense.”
The 11 countries and territories due to receive extra GBV funding from CERF in 2021 are: Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, Sudan, and Venezuela.
Barely helping in protracted crises
Venezuela already received CERF funding in 2020 from the underfunded emergencies stream. Programme planning for the new rapid response funding began in March 2021, according to UNFPA Venezuela. “Work plans are drawn and agreed with NGOs…and once the work plans are signed, funds are disbursed,” it said.
CERF’s separate $21.7 million stream of GBV money for underfunded emergencies is split between $9.6 million for direct programming and $12.1 million in indirect funds allocated more broadly to help prevent or mitigate GBV, including for initiatives on sexual and reproductive health, management of rape, and menstrual hygiene management.
In Venezuela, UNFPA began supporting a GBV programme in 2019 aimed at strengthening operational capacities and building legal institutions. In early 2021, the agency said that four local organisations – Aliadas en Cadena, CODEHCIU, and UNIANDES, in regions bordering Colombia and Brazil; and PLAFAM, in and around the capital, Caracas – would receive an average of $50,000 quarterly from CERF for two years, or around $1.6 million in total.
When earlier UN funds began flowing to PLAFAM in 2020, it allowed them to launch an online hotline providing psychosocial care, Nelmary Díaz, programme manager at the reproductive health organisation, told The New Humanitarian. “For the first time, we can see patients for free, and not at a low cost, which is what we’re usually able to offer,” she explained.
But Yomara Balzán, general manager at Aliadas en Cadena, an NGO supporting women through IT education, work training, and psychosocial support, said that while the international backing was helpful, it was “clearly not enough” in face of the huge humanitarian needs.
“There are still a lot of uncovered needs left, but we’re responding to segments of the population that otherwise would not be able to access psychosocial support, legal help, and management,” Balzán said. “Other organisations are also helping, but it is not enough to cover the whole country.”
The country’s economic freefall and deepening humanitarian and health crisis has driven nearly six million Venezuelans to migrate since 2015 – including many local aid staff. It has also left displaced women, many still in Venezuela, increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence. Violence against girls, left at home while their mothers seek economic independence from their perpetrators, is also on the rise, Balzán said.
Staff at UNFPA’s Caracas office said transactional sex for survival has risen sharply in recent years, as has the level of cruelty committed by GBV perpetrators. CEPAZ, an independent Venezuelan human rights group, estimates that one woman was killed every day this year, compared to one femicide every four days in 2019.
Asked during a video call if the international funds were sufficient to deal with the challenges, Jorge González Caro, head of UNFPA’s office in Caracas, shook his head. “We drew up a humanitarian plan that responds to our institutional capacities,” he said.
According to Michael Jensen, CERF’s director, gender violence has gained visibility over the last two years. “It does seem that GBV has gotten more attention during COVID-19 than before,” he said. “Whether that continues is another question.”
But April Pham, head of OCHA’s gender unit, said only 11 percent of the global requirements needed for GBV were funded, telling The New Humanitarian: “Not only is it underfunded, but it’s chronically underfunded. It’s nowhere near to where we want it to be.”
“Don’t look to us as the answer, because there is a lot more funding that’s needed,” Pham added. “It still requires leadership to prioritise and see that these are critical issues that need funding. Unless they commit to prioritising these issues, they don’t get the funds allocated.”
As the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the annual 16-day global event to combat violence against women marks its 30th, soaring GBV numbers did at least appear to catch the attention of international organisations in 2021.
In March, a UN gender equality summit co-hosted by France and Mexico, underscored the worsening situation for women, particularly in Latin America. The conference concluded with major financial commitments from the private and public sectors to invest globally in an array of women’s programmes, albeit after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed that most calls made to domestic violence hotlines during the pandemic were false.
At a humanitarian conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the head of the UNFPA, Natalia Kanem, said there was a strong will “to do something about gender-based violence”, while Filippo Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees, told delegates that fighting such abuses was also a priority for his organisation.
For Latin America’s victims, however, the situation, if anything, got worse.
In Bolivia, the UN called for the protection of girls who are victims of sexual violence after an 11-year-old was denied an abortion after being raped by her stepfather’s father while her parents sought work in La Paz.
Meanwhile, Ahora Que Sí Nos Ven, a sexual violence observatory in Argentina, reported an increase in femicide in 2021 – from an average of one every 36 hours, to one every 20 hours.
Fourteen of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide globally are located in Latin America.
Brusati at the IRC argued that high-level expertise was lacking. “In many humanitarian settings, we do not have senior managerial staff that have experience in GBV, who are well enough versed, technically, and to address needs on the ground,” she said, adding that local, women-led organisations needed to have more of a say in the use of funds.
While the UN played an important role in coordinating GBV programmes and in emergency response, Brusati suggested that cutting international organisations out of the disbursement process would mean you “get more for your money”.
“That reduces a lot of the overhead costs and allows for more direct funding and would open the door to more INGOs, national organisations, and locally-based organisations, funding them directly,” she said.
“There are delays,” Brusati added. “It is unclear why they always happen, but it makes you question the transparency of how these funds are actually disbursed.”
Meanwhile, those on the front line of the epidemic of violence against women in the vast majority of Latin America that remains unassisted by CERF are forced to improvise and work harder to find solutions.
Recently, a local Peruvian NGO receiving international backing offered to help Mamani Hannco set up Puno’s first shelter for GBV victims, but the government told him that his department was prohibited from receiving donations.
He explained how local politicians, who often seek public funds to promote their own objectives, would ignore the issue of gender-based violence, preferring to prioritise infrastructure projects.
“They would say, ‘I want the money and the project’, and they would inaugurate it, and they would have their photos taken. That’s what they want,” he said. “But unfortunately, when we work on issues of [gender-based] violence, you can’t do that. There are no plaques, there are no photos. It’s not politically beneficial. So local governments don’t invest.”
But Mamani Hannco didn’t give up. He called on the municipality for assistance to help coordinate the funds on offer and find a building so the project could be completed. Puno’s first GBV centre was finally inaugurated on 29 November.
Additional reporting by Andrea Paola Hernández in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. Edited by Andrew Gully.
Map: Figures on Nariño and Chocó from the Colombia Femicide Observatory. Figures for Maicao in La Guajira from the UN’s Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela. Figures for Norte de Santander from El Pais. Figures on rising violence against women from UN Women.