Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global pandemic that affects the lives of one in three women. GBV may take many forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking, and psychological and emotional violence. In many countries, forced child marriages, honor killings, and femicides are part of this spectrum of violence. Dozens of women were killed in Iran to protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman for wearing her hijab in an “improper” way, testify the dire consequences for women of confronting brutal, misogynous regimes.

Types of gender-based violence

A distinction is made among GBV, domestic violence (DV) and violence against women and girls (VAWG.) GBV is the most inclusive term and refers to any type of violence directed at an individual based on their gender. According to the United Nations, “It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms.” Although the majority of the victims are women, men and gender-non-conforming individuals also experience this kind of violence.

Domestic violence (DV) is the most common type of gender-based violence. It includes Intimate partner violence (IPV), which occurs between two individuals in an intimate relationship, and it can manifest as sexual, physical, emotional and psychological violence. Although women are the vast majority of IPV victims, it also occurs among men. DV includes violence against children and grandparents. Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is specifically focused on violence directed at women and girls, as in the case of female genital mutilation.

Domestic violence is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) worldwide had been victims of sexual or physical violence during the previous 12 months, in most cases perpetrated by an intimate partner. That number significantly increased during the first couple of years of the pandemic when lockdowns were instituted. According to a UN survey concluded in September 2021, nearly 7 in 10 women said domestic violence increased in their community since the start of the pandemic.

Domestic violence is vastly underreported. According to UN estimates, less than 40 percent of women who are physically abused at home seek help. During lockdown periods, victims may be too scared to call the police for fear their abuser can overhear them. UN Women has called violence against women “the shadow pandemic,” and António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General has said, “Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes.”

Consequences of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence provokes an array of physical and psychological consequences. Among the physical consequences of gender violence are body injuries, gastrointestinal problems, sleeping and eating disorders, chronic pain, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), miscarriage and unwanted pregnancies. Psychological consequences include depression, lowered self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder that can last for a lifetime. However, as a noted actress, writer and model Cody Kennedy stated, “Don’t judge yourself by what others did to you.”

The global cost of violence against women had been estimated at $1.5 trillion, a figure that is bound to increase as the pandemic continues. According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, the number of domestic violence cases rose by 25-33 percent globally in 2020 compared to 2019. The United Nations group UN Women reports that incidents of domestic violence increased by 300 percent in Hubei, China; 25 percent in Argentina; 30 percent in Cyprus; and 50 percent in Brazil.

In addition to direct violence, other forms of abuse include constant surveillance, strict rules of behavior, restrictive or lack of access to financial accounts and limited access to basic items such as food, clothing and sanitary facilities. All this is complicated by isolation from families and friends. As a result, shelters for abused women and health systems worldwide are now stretched to a breaking point.

The release of inmates from prisons --which have become a hotbed for the spread of the pandemic— worsens the situation. When some inmates are released, they recreate at home the conditions of violence that landed them in prison. That is why family victims should be notified in advance about inmate releases, and local governments should implement preventative and support measures to avoid dire consequences.

Policies needed to address gender-based violence

At a time of great need governments, NGOs and the private sector should emphasize the gender perspective in their COVID-19 responses to secure the rights of women. Governments should increase public-awareness campaigns, consider the needs of older women and women with disabilities, increase funding for women’s organizations, ensure women’s economic independence and, in the case of COVID-19, improve the communication strategies on how better deal with the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has had serious deleterious effects on women’s rights and well-being. But it is also a chance for change and improvement. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former Executive Director of UN Women, stated, “We must not only survive the coronavirus but emerge renewed, with women as a powerful force for recovery.”