As COVID-19 continues to take lives and change communities around the world, the virus is also creating massive protection risks for women and girls forced to flee their homes, a top official at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Monday, stressing that global protection staff are on high alert and adapting life-saving support programmes for those subjected to violence.
“We need to pay urgent attention to the protection of refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls at the time of this pandemic,” said Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The #pandemic exposes vulnerable women and girls - including those forcibly displaced - to greater risks of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation. Ensuring their protection is as urgent and important as any other aspect of the response to #COVID-19. https://t.co/27N5jZqTPC— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) April 20, 2020
“Doors should not be left open for abusers and no help spared for women surviving abuse and violence.”
Confinement policies, lockdowns and quarantines put in place to fight the pandemic have led to restricted movement, reduced community interaction, the closure of services and worsening socioeconomic conditions – all factors that significantly exacerbate the risks of intimate partner violence, Ms. Triggs explained.;
Some women and girls may end up confined to their shelters and homes, trapped with their abusers without the ability to distance themselves or to seek in-person support, she said. Others may be forced into survival sex or child marriages by their families.
In response, UNHCR is adapting its life-saving support programmes, where possible. “In some locations, they are now being managed remotely by social workers with the support of trained community volunteer networks,” said the Assistant High Commissioner.
The agency is distributing emergency cash assistance to support survivors and women-at-risk. It is coordinating its action across the humanitarian sector to ensure the risks of sexual and gender-based violence are mitigated throughout all sectoral interventions - including the emergency health response.
In all such efforts, displaced women themselves are involved at the forefront, informing their communities about the risks of violence and providing information on prevention and protective health measures. They are also helping survivors access specialized support.
Governments also have a critical role to play. “To preserve lives and secure rights, Governments, together with humanitarian actors, must ensure that rising risks of violence for displaced and stateless women are taken into account in the design of national COVID-19 prevention, response and recovery plans,” Ms. Triggs said.
This means ensuring that critical services for survivors of gender-based violence are designated as essential and are accessible to those forcibly displaced. These include health and security services for survivors, psycho-social support and safe shelters. Access to justice for survivors must also not be diminished.
Given the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions now facing many refugee host countries, Ms. Triggs said support from donors will be critically needed to preserve the essential services that prevent and respond to gender-based violence, including those provided by local, women-led organizations.
“We must stand with displaced and stateless women and girls” the Assistant High Commissioner said, urging Governments to place all women and girls’ safety first as they respond to the pandemic.