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The Elders’ Senior Policy Advisor on Access to Justice, Sabrina Mahtani, writes on concrete measures we need to take if we are serious about ending violence against women. 

During the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014, I witnessed first-hand the increasing rates of gender-based violence and abuse alongside declining funds for organisations battling to provide services and support to women and girls. We are witnessing this on a global scale with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is more than a health crisis, it is a human rights crisis. The same structural injustices and inequalities that impacted the lives of marginalised people before the crisis now determine who suffers the most from it - women and girls are bearing the brunt.

Writing for the Inter Press ServiceMary Robinson said:

“The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral and COVID-19 is no exception. The pandemic has resulted in increased rates of violence against women and has exacerbated challenges in accessing justice. Women are losing their livelihoods faster than men.

Millions of women are assuming disproportionate responsibility for caregiving. Many women have found themselves unable to access contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services. UN experts predict that as many as 13 million more child marriages could take place over the next 10 years because of COVID-19 shutdowns of schools and family planning services combined with increasing economic challenges.

Women and girls from marginalised and minority communities are especially at risk.”

Violence against women is a grave global injustice and of deep concern to the Elders. Ending violence against women is an integral component of The Elders’ access to justice programme. The Elders are joining the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women and calling on world leaders to take concrete steps, reiterating the call of the UN Secretary-General.

“This year we mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action - a visionary global agenda for achieving gender equality. Yet, while progress has been made, we have not come far enough. Worldwide, women still have limited access to social protection, and experience pervasive violence, all exacerbated by COVID-19.

During this ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’, The Elders call for a renewed social contract that prioritises access to justice and gender equality. We urge all leaders to address gender-based violence with renewed vigour.”

Mary Robinson

Four critical areas of action have been identified. These are to fund women’s rights organizations, respond to the needs of survivors – including during the pandemic, prevent violence from occurring and collect data for improvements in a survivor-centred way.

The Elders are calling for a range of actions under these themes:



The collective action of women’s groups needs to be supported. They are working on the frontlines of the pandemic and are first responders. Governments, the private sector and philanthropists need to recognise, protect and resource their work.

Women’s groups need urgent and flexible long-term funding. Donors must engage women’s movements as equal partners and work to transform their own institutions. Figures from 2016-2017 show a meagre 1% of all gender-focused aid went to women’s organisations.

Even before the pandemic, funding for justice was shrinking. Aid funding for justice decreased by 40% in four years.

On the occasion of the launch of the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, Mary Robinson said:

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the problems of inequality and injustice and made it harder for grassroots organisations to provide much needed support.

The COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund is a lifeline to these organisations as they adapt to the challenges created by this unprecedented pandemic, and I am proud that The Elders are supporting it with our partners.”

The Elders are supporting the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund as a non-funding partner, alongside Namati, Pathfinders, the Global Fund for Human Rights and the Legal Empowerment Network. The Justice Fund is one way to support grassroots justice groups with flexible, rapid-response grants to enable them to tackle the justice issues the pandemic has created or exacerbated. However, governments must prioritise justice in response and recovery plans.

Writing in The Guardian, Graca Machel said:

“As the global community mobilises funding for response and reconstruction, financing for civil society organisations should be built in 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.”

Longer term solutions to justice funding are needed to enable the SDG 16.3 goal, to achieve equal access to justice for all.

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Photo: UN Women/Allison Joyce



The UN Secretary General has urged all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.  Services for survivors of gender-based and domestic violence must be regarded as essential, allowed to remain open and should be resourced and made accessible, especially to  marginalised and impoverished groups.

Multiple innovative responses have emerged during the pandemic, from online services to emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries.

Access to justice services for women are vital and judicial systems must continue to be responsive. Some countries have taken steps to ensure virtual access to courts and continued protection through extension of judicial orders. It is vital to support more channels for women and girls to access justice, such as by collaborating with community-based paralegals and non-lawyer legal assistance initiatives.

The private sector must play an important role in addressing gender-based and domestic violence – especially with the broadened remit of the workplace during the pandemic. The B Team, a global collective of business and civil society leaders working to ensure a better way of doing business for people and the planet, suggests calls to action, including: 

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Photo: UN Women/ Lauren Rooney



Governments must prioritise gender-based prevention strategies in national response plans, recovery packages and budgeting of resources, ensuring women and children are front and centre in leadership, policy creation, and implementation.

Women judges, police, prosecutors, lawyers and legal aid providers, and associations of women working in the justice sector, play an important role in shaping the ‘justice for all’ agenda. It is therefore critical to boost levels of women’s participation in justice delivery to promote its transformational potential and the essence of equality before the law.

Governments must ensure national laws and policies prohibit all forms of violence against women and girls and promote equality, in line with international standards. A key step governments can take is to ratify and implement international and regional treaties, such as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). COVID-19 must not slow efforts to repeal discriminatory laws against women.

It is vital to scale up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys. Governments must support communities to challenge the social norms that promote discrimination and challenge constructs of dominant masculinity and passive femininity that support men’s violence.

Writing in El Pais, Ricardo Lagos said:

"As men, we need to promote positive representations of manhood. We need to set good examples for our sons to follow. This includes challenging toxic, “machismo” mentalities that foster the acceptance of violence against women, in our schools, workplaces, religious institutions and households."



Governments must ensure that relevant data is collected for purposes of informed decision-making. They must invest in intersectional and gender-disaggregated data, keeping privacy and security in mind as well as a survivor-centred approach. Data is necessary to understand the social and economic as well as legal impacts of the pandemic on women and girls at national and sub-national levels. 

Writing to mark the launch of the Elders activity on the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, Hina Jilani said:

"We need to invest in gender-disaggregated data to guide COVID-19 responses to gender-based violence. This means collecting data in a way that is survivor-centred to help us understand where we need to act and how we can improve access to justice for women.”

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