It is now common knowledge that a pandemic, or any emergency for that matter, impacts women and girls differently than men. While the direct health and financial risks are common for all, it is the additional risk of facing violence and discrimination at home and outside that women and girls have to put up with during any emergency. In the context of Bangladesh, where there is already high prevalence of violence against women, the risk is clearly greater. This leads to the legitimate expectation that there would be stronger commitments towards mitigating these risks in our national response to Covid-19. However, in the national-level actions and strategies pursued so far to address the pandemic, there has been very little emphasis on the issue of gender-based violence, or so it seems from the publicly available information, reflecting a lack of concern at the policy level.
Even the public perception in this regard seems to be somewhat similar; issues of violence against women and gender diverse communities are by and large considered to be of low priority. Certain aspects (or lack of them) may have caused this overall underplaying of the issue during the crisis. Firstly, this is an impact that is not always directly visible unlike the impact on public health. At the same time, media reporting has been relatively limited due to the outbreak, unlike in pre-pandemic times when the media played a significant role in bringing to the fore issues of violence against women. Because of the necessary restrictions over movement and social gatherings, the civil society organisations too—which always provided services including shelter and legal protection to victims of gender-based violence—have had to limit their engagement. Meanwhile, government responses to the pandemic have largely focused on issues of public health and economy, with minimal direction to the agencies assigned for the purpose.
The result is that, although a number of development partners and civil society organisations have been insisting on the need to address the risk of violence against women and children, we are yet to reach a public understanding that acknowledges such a risk as “real”.
Needless to say, we have a separate ministry dealing with issues involving women and children under which there is also the Department of Women Affairs, Jatiyo Mohila Sangstha and many ongoing projects on prevention of gender-based violence. There are committees set up at district, upazila and union levels to prevent violence and also central cells on the same at the ministry. Also, in terms of legislation and policies, this is one of the most dealt-with subjects where we have had several laws, policies and action plans over the years. However, while it is understandable that this unprecedented crisis shifted the entire focus of the state machinery to public health management, a considerable length of time has passed since the outbreak in March. By now, those existing, elaborate structures for preventing violence against women and children should have come up with a strategy to provide additional protection and preventive support for victims during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the voices that are now cautioning about the increase in gender-based violence are largely that of civil society organisations and rights groups. But without the government agencies and functionaries actively leading the initiatives, it is not possible for civil society members alone to provide effective prevention and protection services to the victims of violence.
In designing the steps for ensuring additional protection during the outbreak, all those government agencies and protection services and projects should first accept that the link between the pandemic and increase in gender-based violence does exist. Without this acknowledgment of the severity of the risk, it is hardly possible to take it seriously and plan towards mitigating it. Secondly, an effective strategy direction needs to be given from the government to all these bodies and services on how best to function in the emergency situation maximising the benefits for their target groups. There has to be an inclusive and large-scale consultation initiative at the national level including all relevant ministries, civil society members, women and gender rights groups, donors and development partners. Through such consultation, a brief but effective step-by-step guidance needs to be drawn for various agencies to follow in preventing gender-based violence.
For example, for the One-Stop Crisis Centres (OCC), a special procedural instruction may be provided to all OCCs about how they can maximise their output during Covid-19, instead of working on an ad-hoc basis. Particularly, examination and treatment of the victims of rape and other sexual assaults have to include additional health and safety protocols, and a direction to that effect from the relevant ministry is a timely demand. Similar additional protocols need to be introduced at the safe homes and victim support centres with regard to admission and release of victims. The police stations also need to be given special instructions as regards receiving complaints from victims of gender-based violence, keeping in mind that the victims’ option to reach out for help during the crisis is extremely limited.
In short, there are many new alterations to be made to the existing system and these need to be made carefully by the concerned ministries and authorities so that the existing protection systems do not suffer or come to a standstill during the crisis.
However, it is true that while some of these efforts can be initiated right away utilising the existing resources and structures, some inevitably would remain on paper only, unless increased resources are provided. However, for a wider impact, we must all first acknowledge that the crisis has indeed increased women’s chances of facing violence, and we must consciously try to build this awareness at all levels of governance.