Women are disparately impacted during times of crisis – COVID-19 is no exception. The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, reported on Twitter a “horrifying surge in domestic violence,” with the number of women calling support services doubling in some countries since the beginning of the outbreak. Those experiencing intimate partner violence often turn to religious and traditional leaders within their community for advice, guidance and support. Religious and traditional leaders have played positive roles combatting abuse in their communities and can continue to do so during the global pandemic.
As part of the Network’s #SociallyDistantTownHall series, practicioners came together to discuss intimate and domestic violence and considerations for religious and traditional peacemakers about IPV during the COVID-19. This conversation expanded upon the Network’s guidance document, “What Religious and Traditional Peacemakers Should Know about Intimate Partner Violence and COVID-19.” Religious leaders are often the first person that victims of gender-based violence will reach out to because as they are generally trusted leaders in their community. Due to their unique role and influence, religious leaders have an imperative role in helping women and men who have faced abuse.
According to the Kenya National Council on Administration of Justice, there is a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the country. Sexual offences such as rape and defilement have constituted more than 35% of all reported cases. Similarly, the GBV Command Centre in South Africa recorded a spike in gender-based violence cases reported during the lockdown during 27th March to 16th April with a total of 10,660 through phone calls, 1503 through unstructured supplementary services data (USSD) and 616 SMSs. On 16th April alone the Centre has received 674 cases. In Uganda, in February 2020, a total of 2344 GBV cases were registered and the numbers increased to 2808 in March 2020. Countries in the region also reported increase in cases of trafficking in women and children in which one of the countries has reported trafficking of 27 women and girls aged between 12-16 years.
UNICEF data on women and girls aged between 15 and 49 from 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, showed that 44 per cent in Eastern and Southern Africa and 40 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa had undergone FGM, with the rates found to be over 75 per cent and even higher among those in the poorest households, in ten of the 27 African countries for which data are available.
Considerations for Religious Leaders
First and foremost, a victim of abuse should not be blamed for the situation. Religious leaders should listen to the individual in a non-judgemental way and believe them in order to build a relationship of trust. Choice and self-determination are essential in these circumstances. Religious leaders should also allow the individual to make their own decision on whether to return to the situation or to seek help. However, they should never be encouraged to return to the abusive situation. Gender based violence occurs within all religions. Therefore, is essential to ensure interfaith initiatives to help end violence and offer support to those who are in need.
Religious leaders, community organizers and government entities should seek to develop a mutually beneficial relationship to better support those community members who are experiencing gender-based violence. Some religious leaders may not understand the scale and impact of gender-based violence on physical and psychological health. It is important to harmonize formal and customary laws to better understand the impacts and address the situation in a culturally sensitive manor. According to UN Women, GBV, Child Marriage, FGM and Harmful Practices should be considered as serious crimes without impunity. All protective services for women and girls should be classified as “essential” during COVID-19 and other disasters. Domestic violence hotlines, safe spaces, sexual and reproductive health services, referral pathways, and justice mechanisms are necessary in pre-pandemic times, and even more important in crisis.
Intergenerational dialogue is essential to ending gender-based violence. Inter-generational dialogue should be facilitated among the traditional, faith and community leaders and youth for greater understanding of the issues and for finding solutions tuned to the proclamations by the traditional leaders for ending GBV and harmful practices and in conformity with the human rights standards
Youth must understand from a young age the importance of healthy relationships. It is also important for parents to talk with their children on the issue of gender-based violence in a constructive and healthy manor. Parents and community leaders should also seek to address negative social norms with men and boys, specifically in regards to intimate partner violence. It is important for children to promote positive behaviours.
While governments have a responsibility to develop programs and funding, most of the efforts to combat gender-based violence will occur at the grassroots level as the context is better understood. In addition, grassroots initiatives are able to best respond to incidents with a culturally-sensitive approach. Collaborative community-based training on gender-based violence can also be a key eliminate to eradicating violence. Training for individuals who come into contact with women and children will allow for a plethora of service individuals, including religious leaders, to recognize and respond to gender-based violence.
NYC Mayors Office:
- Outreach materials in various languages for NYC services can be found here, including toolkits for faith leaders.
- Information regarding youth training, including link to NYC’s Healthy Relationship Training Academy videos and the lesson plan are here.
- We also invite people to share this 1-hour, self-guided, online IPV101 training: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/ocdv/media/ipv/story_html5.html
- NYC’s microgrant program, made possible by an anonymous donor and the Mayor’s Fund, grants up to $1500 in emergency funding to DV victims for anything they might need. The press release is here and this will get started in the coming week or so.
- UN Women, “Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic,” https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic
 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), July 2013