#PowerShifts Resources: The Virus of Gender-Based Violence

November 25, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

Maria Faciolince introduces one of her amazing resource lists.

25 November is the International Day to End Violence against Women, kicking off #16DaysofActivism. Once considered a private issue pertaining to ‘family matters’, now it is largely recognized as part of large-scale social issues and systemic oppressions. But to make sense of this day, we have to extend our gaze beyond its literal sense. Especially as the world rushes to move into the ‘new normal’, we must resist re-normalizing the insidious violences that permeate our mindsets, economies and visions of the future. There may be no vaccine, but there is a wealth of ideas, initiatives, resistances, and creativity that is showing a way forward.

In this batch of #PowerShifts Resources, I want to direct attention to gender-based violence (GBV), recognizing that this is a category that includes the violences faced by not only women and girls, but also transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community. Over the next 16 days of activism around this topic, I would be really glad to receive your inputs on initiatives, webinars, tools, resources and exciting stories you have witnessed or been a part of. Write a comment below, or feel free to send them here!

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”

Audre Lorde, 1984

The shadow pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed massive cracks in our societies. One of these has yet again proven to be how children, women, trans and non-binary people are most at risk during times of social stress. National rates of abuse across the world have risen by up to 30% since COVID-19, and government responses to the pandemic have reinforced deep-rooted norms that justify violence (e.g. in Ukraine, a religious figure blamed coronavirus on gay marriage). State-imposed measures of quarantine saw many women finding themselves alone, or with children, locked up with an abuser. Public health interventions also meant restricting the care of pregnant women to all necessary care as well as to abortion clinics, lack of access to basic services and social security and increased financial dependency on partners and extended family.

Violentadas en cuarentena (roughly translating from Spanish to ‘Abused during Quarantine’) was a regional collaborative research on GBV conducted in 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Here are some alarming numbers for Latin America and the Caribbean alone: 1,409 femicides registered from March to June 2020; 242,144 complaints of any type of violence against women; and over a million (1,206,107) calls to any of the national phone lines authorized to report violence against women.

“The pandemic merely lifted the veil from what was not being seen”

Jean Paul Murunga, Equality Now

In the African continent, the massive spike in GBV has been called a “shadow pandemic” by UN Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and others. In Africa as well as elsewhere in the world, domestic violence hotlines and shelters have been reporting rising calls for help. Back in March, we had a Power Shifts contribution by Mwanahamisi Singano arguing that assumptions equating being at home as being ‘safe’, which supported lockdown measures, were flawed. Only in the first half of this year, Liberia recorded a 50% increase in GBV and more than 600 reported rape cases. In Kenya, local media reported almost 4,000 schoolgirls becoming pregnant when schools were closed during the lockdown. And two weeks after South Africa lifted strict lockdown measures and ended a nine-week ban on alcohol sales, there was a massive surge in rapes and femicides.

This is the story of “Sarah”. A survivor of intimate partner violence living in an informal settlement of Nairobi, whose identity has been kept secret to protect her. The COVID-19 pandemic also brought with it a sharp rise in sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya, especially in informal settlements. Sarah was among 1035 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to receive cash transfers from the European Union funded Urban Cash Consortium during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the policies in response to this surge of violence have aimed at strengthening hotlines and encouraging people to report aggressions. Mirta Moragas, feminist lawyer from Paraguay who set up the Consultorio Jurídico Feminista (Feminist Legal Clinic), shared some of the lessons and challenges of their hotline during the quarantine. She echoed similar observations as those across other countries, namely that the the availability of hotlines has not translated into registered legal complaints. It is not hard to think why: likely, because of the difficulties of engaging in a legal procedure when you share your lockdown with your aggressor, and the impending fear of losing one’s home in the middle of a pandemic.

María Noel Vaeza, regional director for Latin America of UN Women, reflects on the need to see a broad spectrum of violence in order to address it in our global road towards the ‘new normal’: “what would be important to reinforce is the need to address the entire continuum of violence against women and girls, during the pandemic, in the recovery phase, and in the post-COVID world, placing greater emphasis on strategies for medium to long-term prevention and to further increase investment in transformative programs […] so that the so-called ‘new normal’ can be a reality free of violence against women and girls.”

“Physical distancing should also address physical violence, which women and girls have been experiencing in their private spaces.”

Mwanahamisi Singano

An essential resource to keep in your radar is the Feminist Covid Response. They have compiled a set of principles to guide actions in response to COVID-19, as well as an impressive list of resourcesand funding mechanisms. It gives me such hope to see this type of initiative set up at a time like this. One principle to take away, directly linked to GBV prevention, is the following:

COVID-19 responses must ensure the health and safety of all, including ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights. There can be no effective response to a public health crisis that does not center gender equality and vice versa. We are witnessing attacks on the human rights of women, girls, and gender non-conforming people by further restricting abortion, access to comprehensive sexuality education, and gender-affirming treatment. Restrictions on movement and/or social isolation measures without adequate social safety nets and support for care services have increased the burden of care work on women, and have resulted in surges in domestic, intimate partner, and other forms of gender-based violence across the globe. Suggested actions include:

  • Ensure women and girls have the support and protection they need to act against any form of injustice, and take early and quick action to prevent violations of their rights that have emerged in other health crises, such as increases in gender-based violence, child, early and forced marriage or removal from school.
  • Scale-up, resource and sustain as essential services the support systems and mechanisms for reporting and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls, domestic and intimate partner violence and other gender-based violence, including through public awareness campaigns to highlight hotlines, crisis centers, shelters and legal aid; especially in contexts of militarization and ongoing conflicts.
  • Engage men and boys to challenge underlying attitudes, stereotypes, social norms and patriarchal power inequalities, including through measures to redistribute unpaid domestic and care work, awareness-raising campaigns, as well as bystander intervention programs and community accountability approaches.

There’s also the Global Tracker of Gender Responses to COVID-19, an initiative launched jointly by UN Women and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Head over to UN Women’s series exploring the effects of COVID-19 and GBV.

If you want to see creative ways of engaging people around the subject of GBV amidst the pandemic, there’s two initiatives you should have on your radar. One is the Say Enough Campaign, which has been publishing really great ‘feminist recipes’ and will continue to post more during the 16 days of activism (some examples on your left).

Another is Quarantennials, a feminist look at Latin American youth in the pandemic. It illustrates some individual stories and showcases how young girls found new ways to fight the patriarchy during this critical time. Here is an excerpt from one illustrated story from Peru:

Virtual realities: fertile ground for GBV

In late March 2020, as countries around the world began to implement social distancing measures to protect public health in the face of COVID-19, our virtual realities started taking on new (sometimes scary) protagonisms in personal domains, for work, as well as for movement-building and organizing. And the implications of virtuality are vast, as oppression is often compounded by technology. Digital tools may provide new ways to prevent and respond to GBV, but also new avenues for perpetrators.

During the last months, in addition to all the above, old and new types types of cyber-harassment, bullying and online attacks, including Zoom-bombing (which is when trolls drop into your Zoom calls unwelcome to spew hate), have also gone on the rise. And the same patterns of violence persist, mirroring the offline world: it is women (especially women ‘of color’), trans and gender non-conforming people, the LGBTQI+ community and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who are the main targets of online abuse.

What is online GBV?

Known by a range of names (including online violence, cyber violence, online violence against women to name a few) the International Center for Research on Women has developed a comprehensive definition of “technology-facilitated gender-based violence”—an action using the Internet and/or mobile technology that harms someone because of their sexual or gender identity.

The Association of Progressive Communications also provides a complementary description of this widespread phenomenon:‘Technology-related violence against women – such as cyberstalking, harassment and misogynist speech – encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as phones, the internet, social media platforms, and email. Technology-related violence against women is part of the same continuum as violence against women offline.’  Visit their FAQ page to understand more about technology-related violence against women.

Some of the most common examples include cyber harassment, blackmail, account hacking, information leaks and privacy breaches. There have been feminists all over the world who have been thinking deeply about what a feminist internet looks like and how feminists can navigate the internet and all its complexity for decades. This is the time to lean on their expertise, and envision what this internet could look like for all of us. I encourage everyone to read the Feminist Principles of the Internet – centered around access, movements and public participation, economy, expression, and agency, where we can feel connected and powerful.

The work of advocating for a just recovery and resisting repressive responses is continuing and thriving virtually. If your life and work requires digital organizing and online facilitation, do check out why digital safety is central to feminist organizing nowadays, as well as this video on how to organize events safely (and avoid trolls). Also be inspired by the following initiatives and resources, taken from this wonderful feminist organizing toolkit on planning virtual meetings, put together by Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF):

  • Take Back The Tech! is a call to everyone, especially women and girls, to take control of technology to end violence against women. It’s a global, collaborative campaign project that highlights the problem of tech-related violence against women, together with research and solutions from different parts of the world. The campaign offers safety roadmaps and information and provides an avenue for taking action. During campaigns, Take Back the Tech! announces actions that combine creative and strategic use of information and communication technology (ICT), with the issue of VAW. Campaigners organise actions that respond to their local priorities, such as workshops on online safety, media monitoring on rape reporting, solidarity actions on the streets and in online spaces and discussions on women’s right to privacy.
  • Cyberwomen is a digital security curriculum with a holistic and gender perspective, aimed at offering trainers with tools to provide in-person learning experiences to human rights defenders and journalists working in high-risk environments. The guide is geared towards both professional trainers and those who want to learn how to train others on their digital protection, and include gender considerations as they do so. It is made up of training modules, interactive games, recommendations for evaluating the training, as well as audio-visual and graphic materials as instructional aids.
  • Safe Sisters is a fellowship program for women human rights defenders, journalists or media workers, and activists in East Africa that trains them to be able to understand and respond to the digital security challenges they face in their work and daily life.
  • FTX: Safety Rebootis a training curriculum made up of several modules for trainers who work with women’s rights and sexual rights activists to use the internet safely, creatively and strategically. It is a feminist contribution to the global response to digital security capacity building and enables trainers to work with communities to engage technology with pleasure, creativity and curiosity. The FTX: Safety Reboot explores how we occupy online spaces, how women are represented, how we can counter discourses and norms that contribute to discrimination and violence. It is about strategies of representation and expression and enabling more women’s rights and sexual rights activists to engage technology with pleasure, creativity and curiosity.

More resources on this:

Association for Progressive Communications, their repository of resources on ICT & gender and their position paper in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also read this article by Tactical Tech – “Technology is stupid”: How to choose tech for remote working.

Zooming out: GBV is a system!

Understanding the ways in which GBV has shifted in offline and online spaces helps us see it as a dynamic set of actions that are part of wider power relations.

GBV is rarely, if ever, an isolated action. To look at only one form of violence – a ‘factual’ and ‘physical’ act – but not at the political, economic and cultural backdrops of GBV is another form of misrecognition and most surely does not help our cause to eradicate it. Just glossing over much of the programmatic work around GBV, it isn’t hard to detect some blindspots that have pervaded it for very long.

I will only mention two here. First, the notorious lack of attention given to new masculinities and their role in GBV prevention and mitigation, as well as limited understandings of other structural oppressions that have led to GBV in many settings (racism, food insecurity, unemployment, migration difficulties, housing, militarism, imprisonment, among others). And, this takes us to a related blindspot: the isolation of GBV from other social dynamics and issues (e.g. poverty, migration, climate, colonialism), aka the lack of intersectionality. An intersectional approach to GBV includes a consistent and thorough consideration of where gender intersects with other inequalities/oppressions such as sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, immigration status, disability, age, class, etc. to produce unique experiences of violence. For example, taking an intersectional approach to research on the impact of COVID-19 can shed light on how LGBTQIA+ people/and LGBTQIA+ People of Colour are differentially impacted.

Last Nov 25 2019, feminist collective Las Tesis from Valparaiso (Chile) took the streets in the center of Santiago de Chile and showed a stunning performance in front of the Supreme Court of Chile. The powerful statement against sexual assault of women by men can be seen as an allegory of the accusation of the suppressive Chilean state, whose police and military forces have killed, tortured and violated numerous protesters as well as innocent bystanders during the biggest civil protests since the end of the military dictatorship in 1989.

A large amount of institutional approaches looking at the links between GBV and the economy focus on the metrics of loss: that is, concerned with counting the costs to national economies. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the economics of GBV are a tool to convince many decision-makers of its importance and to allocate budgets for gender programming, with little emphasis going into addressing the underlying structural issues driving discrimination and inequality (and this isn’t just for GBV… note: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion frameworks vs. decolonizing hiring practices; ‘sustainable solutions’ vs. climate justice, etc.).

Rita Segato, Argentine anthropologist who has spent her entire career working with survivors of GBV in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, offers a lucid rethinking of GBV along systemic lines. She argues that to think that abuse and rape purely pertain to ‘the sexual’ is a gigantic error: “GBV is a crime of power, a masculine frustration” and “He who is in a place of power has to always live obsessed with its reproduction. If it is not reproduced, it ceases to exist.”

Seeing the power dynamics at play in GBV through an intersectional lens takes us one step closer to understanding how power can be exploited, and how we can keep people safe. With a systems lens at the forefront, we are encouraged to read GBV not as a standalone phenomenon, but embedded in systems of power intersecting with other challenges as huge and complex as global inequality and the climate crisis. Listen to our latest Covid, Climate and Care series in the Power in the Pandemic podcast if you’re curious about some of these links (and remember to subscribe 🙂). 

What does GBV have to do with the global economy?

COVID has crudely exposed who our economy values, and has offered a challenge to accepted ideas of what (and who) economies are for. The work lies not only in reducing GBV – the symptom – but also the root. In a previous batch of #PowerShifts Resources, I talked about the concept of ‘care’ in relation to the economy during crisis – check it out.

AWID has recently published their Bailout Manifesto: From a Feminist Bailout to a Global Feminist Economic Recovery, combining demands from feminist and social movements with 5 principles and 10 actions for a feminist post-COVID recovery. Two takeaway recommendations were:

1) Provide resources to feminist movements and community-led organisations (LOUDER for those in the back, please) – Feminist, social justice, and women’s rights organisations have been heavily impacted by the global economic crisis. Not only has it restricted their access to money, it has also increased demand for their action – for example, in response to the rise in gender-based violence. 

2) Address root causes of gender-based violence and create alternatives to policing and criminal justice systems –  Policymakers must invest in the transformative and restorative justice practices developed by communities, researchers, and social movements – especially when addressing gender-based violence (GBV). Decades of experience show that policing and criminal justice systems are incapable of effectively eradicating gender-based violence, and often result in higher rates of violence and discrimination in societies. Community knowledge and scientific evidence have produced alternatives to policing, as well as pragmatic solutions better equipped to tackle social problems. Adequately funded public services, welfare systems, and secure economic rights can ensure that all those trapped in violent relationships, abusive homes, and exploitative situations have accessible pathways to lives free from violence.

Last night, AWID held a global discussion around four feminist initiatives that have created blueprints for a feminist bailout and economic recovery, ‘Capitalism is the Virus: Feminist Recovery is the Antidote’. As soon as the recording is up, I’ll make sure to link it here.

Looping back to the Feminist Covid Response set of principles, here are two essential ones that take into account this systemic lens we’ve been talking about:

COVID-19 responses must promote a comprehensive paradigm shift, relying on adequate and equitable financing. Response measures to COVID-19 must address underlying macroeconomic, financial and trade structural injustices and inequalities. These shifts must set the framework for the post-COVID world order toward building stronger international cooperation based on human rights, well-being, sustainable development, decent work and gender equality, urgently recognizing, valuing, reducing and redistributing unpaid domestic and care work.

COVID-19 responses must be a downpayment on a just and equitable transition towards an equal and healthy planet. COVID-19 responses must be a downpayment on a just and equitable transition towards an equal and healthy planet. The post-COVID future should not be a return to a carbon-intensive economic system based on patriarchy and neo-liberal capitalism. A just and equitable transition involves communities in decarbonization and the transformational shift from the privatization and commodification of resources toward regenerative, sustainable, cooperative, and collective models. A just and equitable transition must be focused beyond the obvious sectors of oil and mining, including affected workers across the global chains and those whose livelihoods have already been disrupted by climate change, which often includes women working in fishing, agriculture and care sectors. It is these same communities that are likely to lose income and work due to COVID-19, or that are required to continue working, risking health and well-being.

Lastly, for those of you interested in delving deeper (and nerdier), you can follow up with this open access article by Jacqui True that engages in a feminist political economy approach to identify the linkages between different forms of violence against women and structural processes.

COVID has encouraged us to think in bold systemic ways. Over the next 16 days of activism, I would be really glad to receive your inputs on initiatives, webinars, tools, resources and exciting stories you have witnessed or been a part of. Write a comment below, or feel free to send them here!

Featured image: Monica Alejandra Lopez, @lamdemonica