Addressing sexual and gender-based violence – the challenges of a global pandemic

December 2020

By Jihane Latrous, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Officer, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

and May Maloney, Addressing Sexual Violence Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)


Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is rising in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been estimated by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that, in the first six months of lockdown, as many as 31 million new incidents of SGBV may have occurred. As the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we are more than ever aware of the continued discrimination and inequality that can drive increased risks to women, girls, boys, men and sexual and gender minorities, including persons with disabilities, of facing SGBV in crises. The Movement resolution on joint action for SGBV prevention and response, adopted at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2015, highlighted the continued and urgent necessity to address this issue. On the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, the ICRC and IFRC operational teams shed light on where we should go from here.

The Story

This is the story of a global pandemic, but not the one you are thinking of. This one is a leading cause of premature death among those most at risk. It has generated the need for specialized training for health professionals and the attention of forensic experts. It has immediate and long-term psychological and emotional consequences as well as social consequences that can lead to stigma and rejection. And it is costing economies around the world billions of dollars.[1]

This is the story of sexual and gender-based violence and how the Movement resolution on joint action for prevention and response, adopted at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2015, urges us to continue and step up our activities to prevent, mitigate and respond to SGBV and to place the needs and capacities of victims/survivors at the centre of our work. This resolution is relevant now more than ever, given the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary consequences, which are clearly impacting both the prevalence of SGBV and the availability of support services for survivors.

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was celebrated on 25 November and marked the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, while 3 December was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. These dates are a reminder of the strength and resilience of individuals and communities, but also of the continued discrimination and increased risks that women, girls and persons with disabilities face when SGBV is carried out in their communities. As the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we acknowledge that an estimated one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime and that women and girls are overwhelmingly affected by SGBV in emergencies. However, we also recognize the diversity of survivors of SGBV, who include men, boys and members of sexual and gender minorities, and the intersecting identity factors that can increase the risk of being the target of SGBV. In addition, we pay particularly close attention to how disasters, conflicts and other crises can deepen some of the structural and social drivers of SGBV, such as social and gender inequalities.

The shadow pandemic – what do we see, what do we know?

It is now clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to two opposite trends concerning SGBV – an upward trend in risk and prevalence and a downward trend in the reach and capacity of agencies (whether governmental or non-governmental) to provide services for victims/survivors. This is not news to us. Our Movement policies, reports and field experience clearly show that when a crisis hits, existing inequalities – such as gender- and diversity-related inequalities – are exacerbated.

Against this backdrop:

UNFPA estimates that in the first six months of lockdown, there have been 31 million new incidents of SGBV.

The Save the Children’s Global Girlhood Report 2020 (published in early October) shows that up to 2.5 million more girls around the world could be at risk of being forced into child marriage over the next five years as a result of the impact of COVID-19. That would mark the worst surge in child marriage rates in 25 years. A million more girls under 18 could fall pregnant this year, putting lives at risk, with childbirth still being the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls.

The International Rescue Committee has reported that rises in SGBV have far surpassed their initial estimations: in 15 displacement settings they found a 73% increase in domestic violence, a 51% rise in reported sexual violence and 32% growth in child and forced marriage.

ActionAid’s Surviving COVID-19: A Women-Led Response report shows that, while domestic violence has ‘surged’ globally, femicides are increasing in some regions and some services have seen a 700% increase in calls for assistance or counselling.

According to UN Women, while everyone is facing unprecedented challenges, women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19.

Movement data sources have also revealed new incidents of sexual violence in conflict-affected settings, and there has been an increase in reports to National Society frontline staff and volunteers of intimate partner violence and child marriage.

We also know that services have been interrupted due to a reduced field presence and that service delivery is limited. This includes situations where Movement restrictions apply to humanitarian workers or community-based organizations and where the diversion of financial, human and technical resources to the COVID-19 response can make it difficult to deliver sexual and reproductive health-care services, therefore creating a justifiable sense of caution about accessing clinical care. The same applies to mental health and psychosocial support and shelter services; it is difficult to get counselling appointments due to the limited number of cases that can be dealt with daily, and over-the-phone or other technology-based support may exacerbate the risk of exposure to SGBV in cases where the victim is confined with the abuser.

Added to this are the challenges for individuals and communities impacted by disasters, conflicts, power vacuums, increased impunity in very fragile contexts and the lack of prioritization of SGBV as a core issue to be taken into account in national and local contingency plans and budgets. This creates a toxic combination, with a rise in anecdotal reporting of incidents, including to hotlines, and a worrying risk arising from increased barriers to accessing essential SGBV services. This situation needs to be further investigated and prioritized by Movement components, governments and global and local SGBV actors.

Where do we go from here?

Our Movement is vast, and our collective work on addressing SGBV includes responses to all the shocking forms of SGBV, ranging from intimate partner and domestic violence reduction initiatives to child marriage response and prevention and efforts to respond to and prevent conflict-related sexual violence, such as rape and gang rape by weapons bearers, sexual slavery and enforced prostitution. We have the capacity to reach many places where there are SGBV service gaps and the expertise required to assist survivors and meet their multiple needs. We have endorsed the importance of a survivor-centred approach – which means putting the needs of survivors at the core of our work – and of partnering with others and working with multidisciplinary teams to ensure that non-discriminatory access to support is available, no matter whether it is provided by us or by another entity.

Collective action is happening, it is inspiring, and clearly more is required as we rise to the task of responding to the impacts of COVID-19. We need to turn the tide and safeguard the gains that have been made. The International Conference resolution continues to be as pertinent today as it was when adopted in 2015, and work must continue to ensure the full and sustainable realization of this commitment. This was echoed in a pledge adopted at the 33rd International Conference in 2019, which called for increased action on this critical issue.

States and Movement partners can tackle root causes, such as abuse of power and gender inequality, to prevent SGBV. We also need to ensure our response is agile, resourced and able to guarantee safe access to health care, mental health and psychosocial support, shelter, livelihoods and justice for survivors. We will continue to ensure that we put the safety, dignity, access and participation of all women and girls and other at-risk groups at the centre of all our operations and services.


More about this topic:

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, in its function as Trustee of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (the Conference), cannot be held responsible or liable in any manner for any user-generated content or posts on this Database. In the event that the Website team considers any post or content to be incompatible with the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and/or with the objectives of the Conference, it reserves the right to remove such content.