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Ten stories throwing the spotlight on sexual and gender-based violence

From COVID-19 lockdowns to migration and conflict, it’s women and girls who are most at risk from violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

A woman walks through a deserted lane in August 2019, after India’s government moved to strip Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a military lockdown.
A woman walks through a deserted lane in August 2019, after India’s government moved to strip Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a military lockdown. (Adnan Abidi/REUTERS)

For the annual 16 Days campaign against gender-based violence, The New Humanitarian has compiled a round-up looking at how COVID-19 lockdowns, conflict, migration, and other global emergencies continue to disproportionately put women and girls at risk of abuse.

While GBV is estimated to affect one in three women globally, for women and girls in humanitarian settings it’s 70 percent, and COVID-19 has only made the situation worse. In a report published this week by UN Women, nearly half of the women surveyed said they or someone they know had experienced gender-based violence.

From Asia to Africa to the Americas, the pandemic weakened economies, forcing many out of work and putting education on hold for millions of children. With women and girls often having to be confined with abusers, the violence became so bad it was dubbed a “shadow pandemic”. 

Movement restrictions during lockdowns curtailed women’s access to support structures, while existing weaknesses in police and legal response were often left badly exposed. Feeling trapped, some women have been driven to attempt suicide. Others have ended up dead, most often killed by a partner or relative.

Rohingya women in refugee camps in Bangladesh, already displaced by conflict, faced further threats and violence from criminal gangs trying to stifle their rights or keep them from speaking out about abuses. Women attempting to flee abuses in Central America by migrating to the United States have struggled to overturn asylum rules that limited GBV-based claims. 

With schools closed because of COVID-19, young girls haven’t been spared either. But cultural norms that disempower women have also continued to feed high levels of violence, including the rape of a three-year-old girl in Liberia.

Our joint investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered widespread sexual exploitation and abuse by Ebola aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to showing in sharp relief just how lacklustre the response of even the largest humanitarian organisations is to such abuses, it also underlined how vulnerability increases among women as they try to find work to survive during emergencies.

The aid sector, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with a longstanding shortfall in funding for programmes for GBV victims, and the continued marginalisation of women in emergency response planning.

Here are 10 examples of our recent reporting that explore GBV and sexual abuse and exploitation issues in different humanitarian settings around the globe.

As violence soars in refugee camps, Rohingya women speak up

Refugees are kidnapped, extorted, and attacked – and aid groups can’t protect them. But some women are pushing back against a climate of fear.

Q&A: How COVID-19 response plans sideline women

Rising threats to women, dwindling funds for women-led groups, and what happens in an emergency when their voices are missing.

A quiet crisis: As the economy fractures, violence soars for Afghan women

Women face more violence as Afghanistan’s economy crumbles. Pushed to the brink with little protection, female suicides are rising.

Liberian women still wait for promised action on rape

Anti-rape activists say the civil war, which ended in 2003, can no longer be used as an excuse for high and rising rates of sexual violence.

Nowhere to turn for women facing violence in Kashmir

The coronavirus extends clampdown conditions in an already militarised region – and keeps survivors of domestic violence shut in with their abusers.

What happens to sexual abuse survivors after the headlines fade?

A conversation about getting justice for survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Confronting the long, uneven path to gender-based asylum in the US

It is exceedingly difficult for victims of gender-based violence to be granted protection in the US asylum system. Could that change soon?

Women rescued at sea reveal scale of alleged Libya abuses

Women and children face horrific violations in Libyan detention centres. Critics say EU policies are helping to perpetuate this cycle of abuse.

Sex abuse scandal rocks World Health Organization, but what now?

The WHO knew of the allegations during the Ebola response in May 2019. So why did it take more than a year to launch an independent investigation?

Latin American women battle shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

COVID-19 means the world’s most dangerous region for women just got a lot more dangerous.

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