“Addressing gender equity and equality is essential to every other challenge we face,” said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in a recent speech at the Generation Equality Forum. Following the forum, countries across Francophone Africa made key commitments to end gender-based violence (GBV), including child marriage.
In Francophone Africa and around the world, GBV is intensifying in COVID-19’s wake, a “shadow pandemic” for which there is no vaccine. It will affect millions of women and girls, compounding COVID-19’s already corrosive impact on gender equality (a key Sustainable Development Goal), as well as social mobility, human rights, and sustainable development.
GBV is prevalent in every country in the world, but data show that women and girls living in low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately impacted. Harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) threaten decades of progress.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a spike in GBV has increased domestic violence helpline calls five-fold in many countries. Lockdowns have confined women and girls at home with their abusers. Overwhelmed health and legal services have shifted priorities or closed indefinitely. This reduction in services creates nearly impossible hurdles for those seeking protection from abuse.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have had devastating economic consequences for households. In 2020 alone, the pandemic led to the loss of 255 million jobs worldwide. The resulting spike in household poverty has put a serious economic strain on families, leading many to make the devastating choice of having their daughters married early to ease their financial burdens. Besides economic hardship, a lack of legal protections and decreased access to education are also driving up child marriage in the Middle East and North Africa, especially among Syrian refugee girls.
According to current estimates, over the next decade, the COVID-19 pandemic may put up to 10 million additional girls at higher risk of child marriage and increase the prevalence of FGM/C by an additional 2 million cases.
The shadow pandemic will have lasting, devastating impacts on women and girls. Child marriage permanently alters the course of a girl’s life, often halting her education, increasing her chances of experiencing domestic violence, robbing her of bodily autonomy, and putting her at risk for earlier pregnancies and maternal mortality. FGM/C can result in obstetric fistula, infertility, infection, complications during childbirth, painful sexual intercourse, depression, and anxiety.
Stopping the surge in violence against women and girls and preventing future harm is the responsibility of the global community.
In the wake of COVID-19 school closings, 20 million girls living in low- and middle-income countries, especially in rural parts of these countries, may never return to their classrooms. With limited access to technology and fewer distanced learning opportunities, they are destined to fall behind academically and disappear from the public eye. This leaves them more vulnerable to child marriage and FGM/C.
Yet despite all these well-documented impacts over the past year, only 1 in 8 countries have taken any gender-sensitive actions to protect women and girls from the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is unacceptable. GBV is an international public health crisis. Stopping the surge in violence against women and girls and preventing future harm is the responsibility of the global community. Country-level legal and policy measures, bold multilateral commitments, and international aid are urgently needed.
Seventy percent of COVID-19 frontline workers globally are women. They need to be at the center of COVID-19 decision-making, too. The only way to ensure the pandemic response and recovery meet the needs and concerns of women and girls is if women have a prominent seat at the policy table.
The Generation Equality Forum and Francophone African countries’ recent commitments are the latest reminders that we’re in for a long, hard fight to reverse rising GBV and uphold the human rights of women and girls everywhere. The international community must continue to shine a light on the shadow pandemic and invest the resources needed to end it.