In times of crisis, women and girls may be at higher risk of sexual or intimate partner violence.

Increased rates of violence have been documented during previous outbreaks and disasters and among people who are displaced or living countries affected by complex emergencies. For example, sytematic reviews have estimated that 1 in 5 displaced women have experienced sexual violence. Due to stigma and under-reporting the true figure may be much higher. The reasons for increased rates of domestic violence include:

  • Increased tensions within the household. This may be due to economic strain, trauma (e.g. loss of a loved one) or simply spending extended periods within the confines of the household.
  • Reduced support. Existing community structures and legal systems that would normally support women and girls may be underfunded and lack capacity and therefore weaken and become dysfunctional.

There may be a heightened risk of violence against women and girls in settings where there are weak health systems, weak rule of law and gender inequalities. Women and girls are also made more at risk of violence based on other aspects of their identity. For example, women and girls with disabilities, or women and girls from indegious or minority ethnic backgrounds face enhanced vulnerability to sexual abuse and exploitation. Sexual and physical violence towards men and boys is also likely to increase during crises but has historically been poorly documented.

School and workplace closures may increase the risks of adolescent girls being exposed to different forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, and early marriage. In water scarce locations women and girls may be forced to engage in transactional sex in order obtain sufficient water (see this video for more information about this issue). During the COVID-19 outbreak families will have a higher demand for water in order to meet increased hygiene needs so it is possible that this situation may make women and girls more vulnerable to this form of abuse.

In several countries healthcare workers (the majority of which are women) have been the target of violence, abuse and ostracism and have been accused of spreading COVID-19 in communities. Organisations and response initiatives may need to look at how to mitigate the risks of violence towards these workers when travelling to and from areas of work and challenge misconceptions through community interactions.

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Editor’s notes

Author: Sian White
Reviewed by: Jane Wilbur,Bethany Caruso, Pryia Nath, Chelsea Huggett
Last updated: 11.5.2020

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