To mark the Day of the International Girl Child on October 11, UN agencies in Bhutan, NCWC and RENEW highlight the critical need to address the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence that Covid-19 has exacerbated. 

Bhutan’s preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the world that science alone is not enough to keep people safe. It has shown that guided by science, compassion and decisiveness matters as much in the response, as do resources and divine interventions. It has shown that a nation’s preparedness and response to a pandemic or any emergency hinges on leadership. With His Majesty The King personally overseeing the response and the Government’s relentless efforts to ensure the wellbeing of the people, Bhutan has built the collective action needed to respond to the demands of the pandemic.  

The pandemic’s impacts, as we have seen, manifest in various forms. From health-related complications to economic shocks; the pandemic’s socio-economic effects are severe and many a times, invisible. As measures such as lockdowns and restricted mobility to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus were implemented, countries across the globe have reported that parallel to the pandemic, another “shadow”, opportunistic pandemic gains strength, such as violations to freedoms, liberties and rights, exacerbating deep-seated discriminatory practices and inequalities. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a case in point.

Economic stress and uncertainty have led to heightened tensions at home often leading to  increased alcohol consumption and substance abuse. Evidence from helplines and media reports in Bhutan, just as around the world, are showing an increase in violence against women and girls and violence in homes more frequent, severe and unsafe during this period. The hardships triggered by the pandemic pose a greater risk to society’s most vulnerable – our women and girls. The pandemic has unfortunately compounded already existing deep-rooted inequalities and harmful practices against women and girls, the effects of which will linger long after the pandemic is over. 

Bhutan’s response to the pandemic’s social impacts is commendable. In June, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador, Her Majesty the Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck, addressed the nation alerting the need for policy-makers to prioritize gender-based violence prevention and survivor support in the Covid-19 Response. Her Majesty spoke both to policy makers and the communities, raising awareness to this hidden pandemic. The National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) and the Ministry of Health are leading efforts to address gender-based violence and child protection issues. From the civil society organisations, RENEW is on the ground bringing much needed assistance, including shelters to survivors. Protection Officers, Social Welfare Officers and Volunteers have been providing referral and other support to women and children needing care and support during the lockdown and throughout the Pandemic period.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the NCWC and CSOs like Nazhoen Lamtoen and RENEW with the support of the UNICEF, UNDP and UNFPA have trained responders including front liners on how to prevent GBV, provide psychosocial support to survivors and refer them to response services. The NCWC spearheaded development of the GBV Contingency Plan, provided PPEs to those rendering services to the vulnerable and supported 24-hour telephonic and online case management and psychosocial support services. Dissemination of advocacy messages through mass and social media have helped raise awareness on the occurrence and proliferation of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls during the pandemic. Training of front liners on the GBV SOP is expected to contribute to better preparedness on dealing with GBV cases in the Dzongkhags and Thromdes. 

While much has been done to address and hopefully eradicate the scourge of gender-based violence, the specialized institutions working on this important area need further support including funding to sustain its efforts. There is as much a need to collect and update data to better understand the differentiated experiences of Covid-19 as to develop tailored and targeted responses. GBV needs to feature high in the Covid-19 Response, if we are to ensure that “no-one is left behind” as called for in the Agenda 2030. 

These services are necessary for a society to prevent and respond to GBV cases. The establishment of hotlines, internet access, SMS services, and/the transition of GBV response from face-to-face to remote mobile phone solutions are an important solution that must continue and require investment. It is also clear that an over-reliance on any one system of support for reaching GBV survivors is not effective. Alternative solutions must be found to safely complement hotline/remote services and to expand assistance to survivors, who, for whatever reason, cannot access services delivered through the existing means.

Gender-based violence risks during the pandemic and the responses to it are still evolving. This means that responders, working in all sectors, must continually adapt to meet the needs of survivors and to help mitigate risks. To ensure continuity of services, the social service workforce must be able to work even during lockdowns and pandemics, so that they are able to provide support. 

In many countries, social services are not recognized as essential services because of which organizations providing services for women and girls face innumerable challenges to ensure continuity of these services. They even struggle to provide effective PPE to their frontline workers, many of whom are women. In some settings, programmes that combat gender-based violence are unable to operate or are simply not allowed.   

The UN has advocated that services to address gender-based violence be “..recognized as lifesaving and officially designated as ‘essential’ for the Covid-19 response and that staff providing such services are equipped with the necessary protective equipment to operate safely…” The zoning system introduced during the lockdown to respond to the needs of the people provides an opportunity to institute GBV response services in each zone and community across the country. This would support institutions like the NCWC to not only respond but also assess and update referral services available in every district and identify the gaps that exist. 

Experts anticipate that gender-based violence services will see an unprecedented level of reporting from survivors seeking help once lockdown restrictions relax and eventually end. Services must be prepared and strengthened to respond to this surge through adequate planning and long-term funding and for a nation that has institutionalized compassion in its response to the pandemic, we are confident that securing the wellbeing of our women and children will remain a priority. 

While the NCWC combines efforts with CSOs in combating GBV, the UN country team in Bhutan remains committed to partner with the Royal Government of Bhutan to ensure that each and every woman and girl in need receives help and support so that no one is left behind. 

A contribution from