Opinion Editorial by World Health Organisation (WHO)'s Regional Director for South-East Asia Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh
Urgent action is needed across the WHO South-East Asia Region to strengthen efforts to protect women and girls from violence and to support their health needs amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, one in three women experiences physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime, mostly in the form of intimate partner violence. In the Region, that figure is estimated to rise to two in five women, or around 40 percent.
Violence against women has serious health impacts, encompassing injuries, as well as physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV and unplanned pregnancies, and mental health problems.
The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has made women and girls especially vulnerable to increased violence and abuse. Limitations on movement can keep women isolated from support services and friends and in close proximity with their perpetrators, often in situations of increased economic and psychological stress. Women have been disproportionately affected by loss of livelihoods, increasing their economic vulnerability and dependence.
The risk to women and girls comes at a time when social protection services to respond to violence such as hotlines, shelters and legal aid have in many areas been disrupted. It is imperative that these and other support services are not only revived and maintained, but also expanded.
On the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, which marks the beginning of the UN’s annual campaign, the 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women, WHO calls on all health sector stakeholders in the Region to take a leading role in addressing this serious public health issue. WHO commends Member States for introducing new or upscaled gender-sensitive measures during the COVID-19 response and urges ongoing action across several key areas.
First, policy-makers must continue to ensure that services for survivors are adequately resourced and included within their package of essential health services, the maintenance of which the Region continues to prioritize. Specific attention should be paid to adapting support services in areas where physical distancing measures are applied, for example by providing them online. All efforts must continue to be made to protect health workers, around 70 percent of whom are women, not only from infection and stress, but also from stigma and violence.
Second, health facility administrators must take concerted action to identify and stay up to date on information about locally available services for survivors, including opening hours, contact details and whether these can be offered remotely, and establish referral links. Health providers, once aware of the issue and its implications, should offer medical treatment as well as first line support, such as empathetic listening, asking about needs, and connecting survivors to support.
Third, trusted community members must continue to increase awareness and stay in touch with survivors in safe ways, while discreetly offering information and support. Both formal and informal networks of solidarity and support are essential to ensuring that women can access the post-violence care they need, and which must be available at all levels of care.
The shadow pandemic of violence against women shows how COVID-19 is exposing, exploiting and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, including gender inequalities. The 16 Days campaign lasts until 10 December, which is observed every year as Human Rights Day, underscoring the fact that women’s rights are human rights. WHO will continue to support Member States in the Region to respect, protect and fulfil these rights and achieve our shared vision of a gender-equal Region that is free of violence against women and girls.