The Silent Pandemic: Gender based violence and the cost of inaction


As countries around the world are starting to realise, the most powerful strategy in combating a global pandemic is a united one. The ferocious onset of the coronavirus is challenging the capacity of governments, international organisations and individuals to work collectively to protect the health and wellbeing of humanity. This response is heartening. It is also needed elsewhere.

One in three women and girls, that’s over 1 billion people, experience gender based violence (GBV) in their lifetime. During the panel discussion “Gender Based Violence: the cost of inaction and the opportunities for action” at the 2019 Reykjavik Global Forum, moderator Felicia Knaul, Chair of the Lancet Commission on Gender-based Violence and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas at the University of Miami, called the issue “nothing less than a pandemic.” Like COVID-19, GBV defies geographic, social and economic boundaries, and the consequences for women, in particular, are dire. 

Like a virus, GBV spreads ubiquitously and does not discern between class, race nor age. The pervasiveness of this issue is undeniable and supported by data. Despite the evidence, governments are still struggling to raise awareness surrounding GBV.  As Flavia Bustreo, Chair of the Governance and Nomination Committee at The Partnership of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) and a Fondation Botnar Board Member, pointed out

We have to overcome controversial resistance.

Governments are often afraid to address forms of gender based violence and to give it the platform it deserves due to various cultural, social and economic connotations. In order to make meaningful change this resistance must be dissolved and GBV openly discussed.

Along with a change in rhetorical strategy, Sandie Okoro, Senior Legal VP and General Counsel for the World Bank Group, recommended changing discriminatory laws as a starting point.

Empowering women by balancing the law

is key to cementing cultural change, she declares. Reevaluating antiquated laws and transforming them into gender sensitive pieces of legislation is essential to eradicating GBV.

Espérance Nyirasafari, Vice-President of the Senate of Rwanda, Minister of Sports and Culture and Minister of Gender and Family Promotion (2016-2018), shared some best practice strategies that her country has successfully implemented, which include integrating gender-mainstreaming strategies across sectors that specifically address GBV, adopting gender sensitive laws and policies, and sponsoring comprehensive medical services in hospitals around the country that provide medical, legal and psychological support to victims of GBV in a single location.

In addition to exchanging efficacious tactics and honing in on specific barriers, the panelists underscored the significant economic impacts of GBV. 

As an economist, I have to share that the economic costs, only speaking of the immediate costs, are tremendous. We are speaking about 2% of global GDP, 1.6 trillion dollars. That is like throwing in the garbage the economies of Spain and Portugal, Felicia Knaul revealed.

Sandie Okoro echoed her concerns, saying that “3.7% of GDP is lost due to GBV in any one country, and that’s more than most countries spend on education.” On top of the medical, social and psychological trauma that GBV perpetrates, it is also, like a true pandemic, responsible for huge economic repercussions.  Not only will continue treatment of GBV as a “side issue” cause the economy to suffer, but it undermines the safety and dignity of women and girls.

There is a story with an individual woman at the end of it. And that’s who we are trying to help here, Ms. Okoro reaffirms. 

The same is of course true for the current COVID-19 pandemic. When communities make sweeping decisions they must understand that there are individual human beings grappling with the ramifications. Gender based violence is no different, and one important similarity between these two pandemics is the need for an integrated healthcare response that addresses gender specific risks.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, released a statement on “Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic,” which documents the intensification of violence against women and girls in relation to quarantine and social distancing measures. Increases in domestic violence are surging as many women and girls are forced to remain at home to contain the outbreak. The “shadow pandemic” that is spreading alongside COVID-19 is challenging both the capacity of the global healthcare system to provide competent medical assistance as well as its ability to dedicate available resources to violence response. Failure to take these gender based risks into consideration is generating an even deadlier outcome for women and girls.

The only way to move is forward. Women political leaders have identified, and been working ceaselessly to eradicate, the causes and consequences of this silent pandemic for countless years. So, while the global community identifies cooperative pathways and creative solutions in the fight against COVID-19, it should consider how current strategies and a unified approach could be utilised to eliminate gender based violence. It should also listen closely to the political leaders – women and men –  who have demonstrated conscientious leadership throughout this battle: leadership exemplified by compassionate and courageous solutions that strike to the core of the issue; leadership whose Achilles’ heel is a lack of universal understanding, commitment and support.