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Access to justice

COVID-19 has gifted us a chance to end gender-based violence. We must take it

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Noting that COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in an increase in domestic violence and a decrease in survivors' access to justice, Graça Machel calls for the global epidemic of gender-based violence to be rooted out as boldly as we are tackling COVID-19. First published in The Guardian.

The COVID-19 pandemic is gifting us an unprecedented opportunity to take innovative action and comprehensively confront the scourge of violence against women.

We have a unique window where, as a human family, we are able to boldly address the social ills COVID-19 is unearthing, and redesign and rebuild our social fabric. As we undergo this process of self-examination, we must work to root out the global epidemic of gender-based violence as aggressively as we are tackling the pandemic itself.

The coronavirus lockdowns expose what many of us have known even before this pandemic – our most intimate spaces of the home are not always safe places. New research by UNFPA predicts that there will be at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence around the world in 2020 for every three months that lockdowns are extended as a result of restrictions to contain the virus.

A “pandemic within a pandemic” has been exposed and we are confronted with the horrific reality that millions of women and children — in every single country – are fighting for their survival not just from COVID-19, but from the brutalities of their abusers amid the prisons of their homes.

Studies indicate domestic violence has increased by upwards of 25% in numerous countries as a result of shelter-in-place measures.

At the same time, abuse survivors are facing limited access to protective services during periods of quarantine. It is no secret that pandemic restrictions have negative ramifications for adults and children already living with someone who is abusive or controlling, and mobility and access to support services are significantly constrained.

Most unfortunate is while the need for protection and survivor support is increasing, justice is proving even harder to access. Resources are being diverted away from judicial systems towards more emergent and immediate public health measures. In every corner of the globe, critical services, such as hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, as well as much needed legal aid and social services are being scaled back due to COVID-19 related infection control measures, as well as diversion of funding and attention. Many courts have closed their doors.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, as the saying goes. And COVID-19 just may be the midwife we need to help birth the proverbial flattening of the gender-based violence curve. We have an unprecedented opportunity here for criminal justice systems to be completely overhauled to be more responsive and relevant in fighting gender-based violence.

A newly released UN Women report shows how countries from Kenya to Trinidad are supporting justice systems to continue to operate using remote technologies and other protective measures. In some countries, courts now are prioritising urgent interim orders, such as restraining orders or child maintenance orders. Australia’s family courts have fast-tracked all lockdown related cases to mitigate risk of violence.

Countries need to fund innovations that promote remote justice services, invest in helplines and other specialised justice and protection services, work with the private sector and create more channels for accessing justice, such as by collaborating with community-based paralegals and non-lawyer legal assistance initiatives. The time is ripe to address the lack of sensitivity around police case handling and medical care, court proceedings and sentencing, as well as rehabilitative support for both offenders and survivors. To strengthen access to justice, we need to support justice leaders such as by creating a virtual forum for justice ministers to share best practice and highlight urgent needs.

There are many impressive practical initiatives around the world that are taking steps to lessen the dangers women face at the hand of her abusers. Countries such as Spain and France have created emergency warning systems in supermarkets and pharmacies to offer counselling and help with reporting of abuses. Canada is keeping shelters open and earmarking resources in their relief bill, categorising them as essential services. Out of a necessity for more shelters, 20,000 hotel rooms for survivors will be paid for in France. Police in Odisha, India have implemented a Phone-Up Programme, where police officers check up on women who previously filed reports of domestic violence before the lockdown. These innovative approaches need to go beyond the confines of singular borders, be adapted for local contexts and replicated at scale globally.

The innovation and resilience of grassroots justice groups continues to give me hope in these dark times. They too are on the frontlines, leading rights awareness campaigns, adapting to deliver legal advice remotely and ensuring disadvantaged groups are not overlooked.

As the global community mobilises funding for response and reconstruction, financing for civil society organisations should be built into financing mechanisms from the start. The United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund for COVID-19 Response and Recovery has pledged to work in partnership with civil society. It must follow through and offer fast, flexible financing not only to community health initiatives, but also to civil society groups.

Social media is another powerful weapon at our disposal. Bold advocacy and awareness campaigns should become a common feature on our TV and phone screens.

We have been presented the opportunity to reimagine and redesign our societies into safe, vibrant and equitable ones. We are proving that we can come together as a united human family to holistically tackle COVID-19; let us apply an equally comprehensive, vigorous and unrelenting focus to eradicating gender-based violence as well.

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