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Gender-based violence and COVID-19: Why justice is essential to response and recovery plans

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(Photo: Skoll Foundation)

Stacey Cram from Namati outlines the intersection between access to justice, the pandemic and violence against women and girls.


Communities around the world are reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to contain it. In informal settlements, lockdowns threaten livelihoods and basic services. In prisons and detention centres, the virus is spreading unchecked. In quarantined homes, domestic violence is surging. Meanwhile, under cover of emergency actions, political leaders are postponing elections, detaining dissenters, and consolidating power. Restrictions on movement, information, and expression are hampering civil society’s ability to defend fundamental freedoms.  This explosion of rights violations destabilises our societies and weakens our economies.  

In each of these scenarios, women are disproportionately affected. Pre-existing "toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the pandemic, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, have led to an exponential increase in gender based violence" (UNDP). In Singapore, domestic violence hotlines have registered an increase in calls by 33 percent. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25 percent since the lockdown started. Women, particularly poor women, are more likely to participate in informal economies that have been significantly impacted by government measures. Across the globe, women are taking on the excessive burden of additional caretaking responsibilities. 

According to the Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19 report "There is now major concern that COVID-19 and its impact will push back fragile progress on gender equality, including slowing progress in reversing discriminatory laws, the enactment of new laws, the implementation of existing legislation and broader progress needed to achieve justice for all." Providing people and communities with quality access to justice is vital to ending violence against women and preventing a generational gender equality backslide.  

Fortunately, grassroots justice defenders in every country are drawing a roadmap toward recovery. Their work --- empowering people to use the law to tackle injustice in its many forms --- is an essential component of recovery.   

Legal empowerment groups demystify laws and policies for the communities they serve, pragmatically blending legal action with advocacy, negotiation, and community organising to reach a solution. In response to COVID-19, they are increasing access to vital information, aid, healthcare, and other basic services by enabling people to know their rights and navigate complex systems. Through the monitoring of service providers and security forces, they enhance the accountability of pandemic response programs, while addressing violence during the enforcement of quarantines, curfews, and other containment measures.  As emergency actions escalate, grassroots justice defenders work to prevent the entrenchment of unjust or discriminatory policies.   

The Legal Empowerment Network, convened by Namati, is the largest community of grassroots justice defenders in the world, bringing together 2300 grassroots justice organisations from over 160 countries.  When the pandemic hit we surveyed our members and found out that 91% of organisations were able to adapt their support, rising to the challenges the pandemic created with innovation and resourcefulness —supporting female prisoners at risk of mass infection to secure their own safe release, using community radio to spread information about life-saving economic relief measures, or setting up domestic violence support lines to deal with rising demand. 

Grassroots justice defenders are doing all of this work on already-stretched budgets. Prior to the pandemic, the Justice For All campaign identified that grassroots justice defenders were facing two key challenges: financing and protection. After the pandemic hit, we found that nearly 80% of those surveyed had inexpensive ideas for better supporting communities, but could not fully implement them due to financial constraints. Meanwhile, donors faced operational challenges in supporting grassroots groups because of their size and geographic spread. 

In response, the Legal Empowerment Network, The Elders, Namati, Justice For All, the Fund for Global Human Rights, and Pathfinders for Peace Just and Inclusive Societies came together as non-funding partners to assemble the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund. The COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund provides vital flexible small grants to grassroots justice groups working to respond to and rebuild from the pandemic. A committee made up of grassroots organisations, spanning broad geographical and thematic areas, select the organisations to receive awards. The fund aims to raise 1 million dollar and has been funded by governments, philanthropy and individuals dedicated to closing the justice gap.  

This week, the fund distributed its first grants to 30 outstanding organisations that defend rights and freedoms, support victims of violence, help discriminated groups, advocate for equitable pandemic recovery plans, and much more. Organisations include:  


  • Familias Diversas Asociación Civil, who support women, children and LGBTQIA community members in urban slums, indigenous and migrant communities to access justice on health, gender violence and sexual abuse, and promote comprehensive sexual education. With funds from the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund Familias Diversas Asociación Civil will build an online Community Legal Centre offering legal advice and information and training concerning rights’ violations during the pandemic and in a post-pandemic context for girls, boys, teenagers, women and LGBTIQA+.  

  • Nazdeek, who build leadership among women tea plantation workers in the Indian state of Assam, informal settlement dwellers in Delhi, and garment and factory workers in Tamil Nadu, to lead the redressal of community-wide and individual rights violations. Throughout the pandemic female paralegals, have continued to ensure community members have access to water, food, healthcare and fair wages. With funds from the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund Nazdeek will continue this vital work and develop an online community owned grievance monitoring tool, to allow for greater remote support.

We recognise that this fund is only a drop in the ocean of what is needed to support these amazing groups and to address the global justice gap, currently estimated to be 5.1 billion people lacking access to justice. To ensure a lasting and resilient recovery, sustainable sources of financing for civil society legal empowerment efforts must be established. Every government and donor, from local to national, can look to integrate financial support for grassroots justice groups into stimulus packages or other long-term pandemic relief measures. The private sector can exercise leadership, whether through resourcing organisations, calling for policy reforms on justice issues or adjusting their own internal practices to be more equitable. By acknowledging and promoting the role of grassroots justice defenders in recovery efforts, we can help reduce gender inequalities, address injustices and build back better more equal societies.   


Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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