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OPINIONMarch 23, 2023

What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about protecting women?

The problem became even more evident during the Covid-19 pandemic

Pablo Acosta
Folha de S. Paulo

Violence against women is a major challenge that affects all of Latin America, including Brazil. This problem became even more evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. Studies have found, for example, that calls to the domestic violence hotline increased by 48% in Peru (Aguero 2020) and 32% in Argentina (Perez-Vincent and Carreras 2020) and that the intensity of Google searches for topics related to domestic violence increased by 30% in a group of countries that includes the five largest in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico) (Berniell and Facchini 2021).

In the developing world, links between Covid-19 social distancing measures and violence against women were most clearly seen in Latin America and Caribbean (LAC), according to a recent World Bank publication. The analysis by the World Bank team examined data from 563 measures identified in low- and middle-income countries addressing violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic and obtained from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and UN Women’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker.

Among low- and middle-income countries, those in the LAC region invested the most in gender-sensitive measures involving cash transfers. Of the 112 such measures adopted in these countries, almost half (47) were among LAC countries, most of which exclusively targeted or prioritized mothers and/or pregnant women (e.g., Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay). Brazil, for example, approved an emergency cash transfer (Auxílio Emergencial) in March 2020 which provided monthly benefits to informal workers, where single mothers (women head of households with young children) received double the benefit. In Mexico, as a form of cash for care benefits, subsidies for working mothers of children up to 4 years of age were granted.

While only a minority of cash transfer measures focused specifically on violence against women survivors, some examples are worth mentioning. Argentina’s Acompañar program targets women and LGBTI people in contexts of gender-based violence, offering cash transfers equal to the minimum wage for six months and comprehensive assistance and access to psychosocial support coordinated with local and provincial governments. The Dominican Republic included a component in the country’s overarching cash transfer program aimed to promote women’s economic empowerment through entrepreneurship and access to care services and provide support in situations of domestic violence.

Most of the analyzed measures (65%) addressing violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic in low- and middle-income countries were targeted at strengthening services, thus emphasizing the importance of further investment in existing violence against women services, or their creation where a structured network of services is not yet in place. Additional key types of measures adopted included awareness-raising campaigns (17.2%), improvement in the collection and use of data (6.9%), integration of violence against women in COVID-19 responses (6.4%) and other measures (4.4%).

Similar trends were found when looking only at LAC countries, where nearly half (214) of these measures were identified, with strengthening of services composing the majority (65.7%) of responses, followed by awareness-raising campaigns (18%), improvement in the collection and use of data (5.8%), integration of violence against women in COVID-19 responses (5.8%) and other measures (4.7%).

In general, the analysis shows that, at the same time that the increase in violence against women has highlighted several gaps in support to survivors and prevention policies and services, the emergency context has put to test the capacity of governments and civil society to provide rapid responses and innovative measures, many of them based on lessons from past epidemics. In addition, the focus on responses to mitigate economic stress as a possible channel for increasing the risk of violence proved to be relevant among response initiatives.

While we still need more robust studies to understand the specific impact of the different approaches and policy measures adopted, a significant body of expert knowledge has emerged with fairly consensual best practice lessons and recommendations across relevant international expert organizations. These include: strengthening violence against women services and first response systems (including response integration and coordination) and adapting them to virtual contexts (through technology based solutions); ensuring resources availability, including through earmarked funding; ensuring data collection and availability and strengthening awareness-raising efforts; and integrating a gender-sensitive approach and violence against women into COVID-19 responses (see Bastos et al. 2020).

Economic support measures are an important part of this response. Some lessons and recommendations in this regard include: a) Implementing or expanding financial aid, with a particular emphasis on women and/or violence against women survivors; b) Adopting or expanding social protection measures in the form of financial aid, including direct cash transfer, staple foods packages, or other subsidies, including cash for care, electric bill, and wage subsidies; and c) Implementing policies fostering women’s economic empowerment and childcare policies during the pandemic and as part of recovery measures (World Bank 2020).

These lessons are in line with the 25 initiatives announced by the Federal Government on March 8 - International Women’s Day – to promote women's empowerment and reduce violence against women rates. These include the resumption of the Mulher Viver sem Violência Program (Women live without violence), the construction of 40 safehouses for women (Casa da Mulher Brasileira) and actions to promote gender equality in the labor market, focusing on women victims of violence.

In the words of World Health Organization (WHO) Director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: "Violence against women is endemic in all countries and cultures. It has been exacerbated by the pandemic and, unlike Covid-19, it is not resolved with a vaccine". To prevent further harm, action must be taken now. The recent measures announced by Brazil contribute to responding to this situation. However, they are only a first step; many more need to be taken in the country and in Latin America and the Caribbean to protect all women and girls.

This article was originally published in Folha de São Paulo and was written in collaboration with Paula Tavares, Senior Legal and Gender Specialist at the World Bank Group and Flavia Carbonari, Senior Consultant at the World Bank on Social Development and Violence Prevention.


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