International Development Law Organization

The Shadow Pandemic: Addressing gender-based violence during COVID-19

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Violence against women has long been recognized as a global epidemic, and the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly escalated threats to women’s safety, security and access to justice. The devastating ripple effects of the virus such as overburdened health systems, the global economic downturn, school closures and national lockdowns have created a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence (GBV).

Under lockdown and other physical distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus, women around the world have been confined to their homes, many out of reach of service providers and some trapped in quarantine with their abusers. In addition, rising stress levels, strains on economic resources and isolation from support networks further contribute to the increased risks of GBV during COVID-19.

Lockdowns have limited access to essential services for survivors of GBV, such as health facilities, police stations and courts. Health workers have been pulled out of structures that provide services for survivors and resources have been reallocated to contain and respond to the direct health threats presented by COVID-19.

A report by IDLO, UN Women and others states that the pandemic exacerbates threats to women’s access to justice and cites curtailed access to justice institutions, rising intimate partner violence, growing injustice for women workers and discriminatory laws, combined with pre-existing gender inequalities, as some of the major risks to women’s lives and livelihoods associated with COVID-19.

Amid the pandemic, IDLO is working around the world to eliminate gender-based violence in all its forms. With approaches tailored to the local context, IDLO is adapting existing interventions and innovating new components of programming to ensure justice for women is not derailed during this crisis.

Country spotlights: 

  Myanmar: Reaching communities

  Kenya: Access to justice for survivors through improved institutional capacity 

  Afghanistan: Working with Women's Protection Centers

  Mongolia: Protection for vulnerable groups

  Somalia: Justice for women within the formal and informal sectors

  Tunisia: Partnering on continual learning for judges handling GBV cases

Myanmar: Reaching communities

While there are no official national statistics, local and anecdotal evidence suggests that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is widespread in Myanmar, even before the pandemic hit. Intimate partner violence is considered a private matter within families, and survivors are often stigmatized within communities and shamed for experiencing violence. This discourages survivors from pursuing legal remedies, and the justice system often pushes them back to their abuser and fails to properly investigate the case. 

IDLO has adapted to COVID-19 as it responds to SGBV in Myanmar through new ways of reaching out to communities. Following a request from local partners in Shan State, IDLO developed pamphlets on SGBV which were distributed to over 11,000 individuals. In addition, IDLO has engaged communities through podcasts and videos to raise awareness about SGBV and include information on where to seek help. As people in Myanmar rely on Facebook as their primary source of information, IDLO hosted virtual livestream events to enable constructive engagement around the issue of access to justice during the current crisis. A series titled “Lawyers in Lockdown” discussed the impact of COVID 19, including on SGBV and access to justice.  

In addition to new innovations, IDLO has adapted its existing initiatives by moving them online, including a working group on SGBV in Shan State, and has engaged with customary and traditional justice leaders on GBV in Kachin State. 



Kenya: Access to justice for survivors through improved institutional capacity 

Data from Healthcare Assistance Kenya show a sharp rise in the number of reported GBV cases during the early months of 2020, with cases rising 34 per cent between February and March and skyrocketing to a staggering 301 per cent increase between March and April.

While Kenya has a robust legal, policy and institutional framework for the prevention of and response to GBV, the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated the inequalities that women and the most vulnerable groups, including youth and children, continue to endure, even in “normal” times. As the court system is not operating fully under social distancing measures, curfews and closures, access to justice is a challenge for women and girls.

IDLO is currently working to strengthen the capacity of Kenya’s justice institutions to prioritize and address the rising number of GBV cases during the pandemic. Working with the judiciary, IDLO helped accelerate the roll-out of an e-filing and case-tracking system in court stations within marginalized counties, which follows cases from the moment they are filed to their conclusion. This resulted in an improved access to justice for survivors of GBV during COVID-19 through automated functions of the judiciary.

Kenya is yet to establish fully functional state-owned shelters for survivors of GBV, particularly those who have suffered abuse in their homes. With the continued spread of the virus in Kenya, women face an increased risk of physical and psychological violence related to family confinement, isolation and economic vulnerability. In response, IDLO supported the development of the country’s first operating guide on the establishment of state-owned Gender Based Violence Recovery Centers. 

Afghanistan: Working with Women's Protection Centers

While women’s legal standing in Afghanistan has improved with the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law and the new Penal Code, women still face enormous challenges. The Women Peace and Security Index, a global measure of 167 countries, ranks Afghanistan as the second worst performing country in 2019-2020. Rates of gender-based violence are also alarming, with studies suggesting that 87 percent of Afghan women experience at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lifetimes (UNFPA).

Although statistics are hard to obtain and underreporting is common, indicators have pointed to a worsening situation for women and girls and rising violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. The Women’s Protection Centers (WPCs), supported by IDLO, have seen a surge in admissions, with rates doubling in some cities. Prior to the pandemic, most women who turned to the shelters were seeking protection and assistance while dealing with sensitive legal or family matters, such as divorce. Now, most newly admitted women are fleeing extreme physical violence and seeking refuge from their own homes.

Beyond the indications of increased violence, the WPCs are experiencing challenges of overcrowding, and have resorted to housing residents in classrooms used for vocational training in order to comply with social distancing measures. WPCs are also under pressure to find space for women who were released from prisons in response to presidential decrees and who have nowhere else to go, as well as women who would otherwise be held in custody at Detention Centers. This has aggravated overcrowding in the WPCs and resulted in the mixing of victims of gender-based violence and domestic abuse with women who should be housed in detention facilities, halfway houses, or prison.

IDLO is supporting WPCs as they navigate these new challenges presented by COVID-19. In addition, IDLO’s program works to strengthen the EVAW units within the Attorney General’s Office and improve the quality of legal aid in the country. IDLO has also transferred its learning interventions online, as part of its work to build the capacity of justice sector institutions to implement continuing professional development, including their ability to monitor and address GBV cases.

Rates of gender-based violence are also alarming, with studies suggesting that 87 percent of Afghan women experience at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lifetimes (UNFPA).




Although the majority of victims of domestic violence in Mongolia are women – an estimated 57.9 per cent of married or partnered Mongolian women have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetime – vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and the disabled are also at greater risk of physical abuse and neglect.

Mongolia: Protection for vulnerable groups

Mongolia has witnessed significant upticks in domestic violence incidences since the beginning of lockdown measures. Reported data for the first quarter of 2020 revealed a 47 per cent increase in cases recorded by the police compared to the first quarter of 2019.

Although the majority of victims of domestic violence in Mongolia are women – an estimated 57.9 per cent of married or partnered Mongolian women have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lifetime – vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and the disabled are also at greater risk of physical abuse and neglect. Due to restrictive measures and school closures, increased stress on families has led to an increase in domestic violence and violence against children. In fact, in March 2020, the reports of physical abuse of children increased by 46.8 per cent compared to February 2019 and emotional abuse increased by 57.6 per cent (UNFPA). By April, the capacity of one state-run child protection shelter reached an astounding 115 per cent.

Domestic violence against older persons is a severe violation of human rights that very often goes unreported due to the misconceptions the elderly themselves have about domestic violence, their views on their role in the family, low legal awareness and their dependence on their perpetrator(s) for care and financial support. Other contributing factors are represented by the lack of services or capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) to respond to the specific needs of this group.

In response, IDLO has been working with partners to address the needs of vulnerable groups. Together with the Domestic Violence Division of the National Police Agency, the Family Development Department of Authority for Family, Child and Youth Development and the National Center against Violence, IDLO supported livestreamed Facebook sessions and weekly radio programs that offer legal advice to justice seekers. IDLO also supported a public legal awareness campaign to promote healthy family relationships in times of strain, by running short videos on buses, in public squares and on television. To address the needs of the elderly in particular, a workshop was held with the Mongolian Association for Elderly People to raise awareness about the rights of victims. The IDLO-supported CSO Forum continued to convene online to ensure strengthened coordination of the network of organizations that respond to access to justice needs within the population.

Somalia: Justice for women within the formal and informal sectors

After the Somali Federal Government placed restrictions on movements in March, the number of GBV cases reported to the Attorney General’s Office quadrupled by April. Actual numbers are estimated to be even higher than those formally reported as most Somalis turn to the informal justice system where elders within the community adjudicate GBV cases. To respond to the rapid increase of cases and reports during this period, IDLO adapted its initiatives in both the informal and formal justice sectors in Somalia.

The IDLO-supported Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Centers in Mogadishu and Puntland remained open and continued to provide justice service despite the closure of the District Courts and limitations on movement. Keeping the Centers operational was particularly critical given that around 50 per cent of cases are brought by women who primarily seek justice for family disputes, including domestic violence. IDLO purchased personal protective equipment, installed handwashing stations, and implemented social distancing and other safety measures to ensure the Centers could continue running. The Centers also initiated hotline support for better outreach to potential justice seekers, especially women at risk in their homes.

Within the formal justice sector, IDLO responded to the influx of reported cases by embedding a GBV case consultant in the Attorney General’s Office. As part of a new program to develop Somalia’s first Judicial Training Institute, IDLO will be creating a GBV handbook and offering specialized training on GBV cases to judges. A sharia expert will be hired to advise on how sharia law plays into the GBV context in Somalia. 

Tunisia: Partnering on continual learning for judges handling GBV cases

Despite the passage of a landmark bill to eliminate all forms of violence against women, GBV in the country remains a problem. Data from the Ministry of Women, Family and Children in 2016 indicate that 60 per cent of Tunisian women are victims of domestic violence as of 2016. As in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has made women even more susceptible to violence while under lockdown. Between 23 March and 31 May, 9,800 calls requesting emergency shelter services were recorded on the country’s toll-free helpline numbers – nine times higher than usual.

IDLO has continued to prioritize GBV within its programming in Tunisia, despite new challenges presented by the pandemic. In August, the country released its first ever manual to guide the operation of women’s shelters, which was directly supported by IDLO’s work. Judges in Tunisia are also benefitting from Training of Trainers (ToT) methodology pioneered by IDLO, with the aim of enhancing their capacity to handle GBV cases. Now, the ToT is being used by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as part of their technical cooperation with IDLO. To date, 14 judges from personal and family law tribunals in Tunisia, selected by the Ministry of Justice, have participated in the ToTs and will now be able to deliver training sessions to other judges. National expertise on GBV in Tunisia is relatively limited, with only four or five national consultants. Through the training, the number of beneficiaries is expected to multiply by up to 15-20 newly trained judges in one day. The participating judges will be used by international organizations in the country as experts and trainers on GBV. 

Photo credit from top to bottom: Creative Commons; IDLO_Myanmar; Renate Wefers- Adobe; Adobe; IDLO_Mongolia; UN Photo_Tobin Jones; tinopepe- Adobe