What more can be done to support a growing number of women and girls experiencing violence at home during the pandemic?

By now, we know that the incidents of gender-based violence (GBV) increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic and social stress coupled with isolation measures cast a shadow pandemic on women and girls across the globe.

Globally, one in two women reported that they or a woman they know have experienced violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a report by UN Women, Measuring the Shadow Pandemic: Violence against Women during COVID-19. Seven in 10 women think domestic violence has increased since the pandemic started.

And Bhutan is no exception. In 2020, reports of violence against women and girls in Bhutan increased by 51.3 percent as compared to 2019, according to records maintained by the National Commission

for Women and Children (NCWC). This is further confirmed by the findings of an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on women and children carried out by the NCWC. More than half of the 8,048 respondents surveyed in the assessment said there was an increased risk of violence against children, particularly girls. 

As we mark the 30th anniversary of 16 Days of Activism against GBV, the world and Bhutan must redouble efforts to create safer homes and communities for women and girls.

Since the pandemic started, UNDP, along with other UN agencies, intensified efforts to support national institutions to counter this shadow pandemic through services dedicated to those affected by GBV. 

My 20 years plus experience working on this issue have convinced me that there is no silver bullet to end GBV. Research indicates that combined economic empowerment and gender-transformative interventions may contribute to reducing the prevalence, but findings are not conclusive. As is the case with all complex social challenges, ending GBV requires a set of multiple-dimensional interventions that reinforce each other. 

Let’s focus more on prevention

Addressing this multifaceted challenge requires a fundamental shift in the way we approach it. Much of the efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls have centred around response mechanisms and support services for survivors. However, we must turn around social norms that accept violence and gender stereotypes that perpetuate cycles of violence. The Gakey Lamtoen, a GBV prevention project piloted in Babesa, Thimphu, by NCWC in partnership with UNDP, tries to do that.

The project introduced integrated, innovative approaches and dialogue-based participatory engagement. Participants reflected on gender biases and discrimination and their impacts on efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls. The project empowered two primary beneficiary groups – caregivers and adolescents – to become changemakers in their schools and community, to influence peers and community members, and to lead broader community engagement activities to promote and nurture ‘safe, happy, and equitable families’.

The Gakey Lamtoen Project has also promoted male champions and activists who have become ardent activists and used innovative ways to raise awareness to prevent violence against women and girls through the use of art, dances, videos, and myth busters.

Lessons from the project confirm that we must work more with men and boys to remove harmful and discriminatory stereotypes and promote respectful and healthy relationships. RENEW’s leadership in this area is commendable. As part of the 16 Days of Activism campaign, the NGO worked with men to advocate for the prevention of GBV and violence against children. Male taxi drivers from all districts and a biker’s group, Thimphu Badgers, have joined the heart-warming initiative, and UNDP is proud to support this campaign. 

Let’s build economic empowerment of women 

Economic empowerment of women is central to increasing the resilience of vulnerable women to the impact of the COVID-19. The RENEW-UNDP Livelihoods project provided vocational training, cross-cutting skills development, and essential rights and awareness building training for survivors of violence. Drayang workers displaced by the pandemic, members of the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV were some of the target groups for this initiative to build their livelihoods back better. Some of the women started businesses, while others took up farming. 

The Bhutan Youth Development Fund’s wellbeing project for young people supported by UNDP helped young women impacted by COVID-19, including those battling mental health illness, cope with the crisis. Together with SABAH Bhutan, we empowered home-based women workers through skills building, income generation and raw material support for the production of textile products.

Let’s ensure vulnerable women have due access to legal counsel and representation 

What we have witnessed during the COVID pandemic is how survivors of GBV are faced with multiple layers of vulnerabilities. While tremendous efforts have been made to provide essential health and social services, the survivors of GBV are often left to fend themselves through what is often arduous and lengthy legal procedures. 

The Constitution requires us to endeavour to provide legal aid to secure justice, which shall not be denied to any person by reason of economic or other disabilities’ (art. 9(6)). Yet women and girls, who have suffered abuse, have so far not been afforded much legal help to hold the perpetrators of brutality accountable. To address this gap, in early November, we partnered with RENEW and a private legal firm to enhance access to legal representation for vulnerable women. 

Further, in collaboration with NCWC, we developed the Legal Aid Guidelines for Vulnerable Women and Children 2021 to ensure that vulnerable women have access to legal representation. Women who have been traumatised, sometimes by years of assaults and battery, are seldom in a position, financially, mentally, or practically, to pursue legal cases against their tormentors. Providing survivors of GBV with legal aid to ensure that offenders are made to answer before our courts not only serves to uphold the dignity of survivors but also sends a clear message to society that GBV is a serious offence that will always be prosecuted. 

As of today, requests for legal aid from five vulnerable women are being processed and will soon have the representation services of qualified Jabmis to seek justice through our courts. It is our sincere hope that lessons from this support will catalyse the required momentum to establish a sustainable mechanism to provide legal support to vulnerable women in the future, as envisaged in our Constitution. 

UNDP will continue to invest in efforts and initiatives aimed at influencing transformational changes in addressing issues around GBV and advancing rights of women in Bhutan. Violence holds back everyone, not just women and girls. Without ending violence against women, achieving Gross National Happiness, equitable and inclusive economic growth and 17 Sustainable Development Goals will not be possible. 

Contributed by Azusa Kubota

Resident Representative, UNDP