Updated: June 24, 2020
COVID-19: Shining a Light on the Shadow Pandemic
Dr. Amanda Dale, Women’s Human Rights Education Institute
In 2013, the UN WHO released a ground-breaking report on the global incidents of violence against women. At the launch of the report, then WHO head, Margaret Chan, framed the rate, scope and geographic ubiquity of violence against women as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”. Not long after, the Secretary General of the United Nations and related bodies, such as UN Women, began referring openly to violence against women and gender-based violence as a “global pandemic”. (The primary difference between a pandemic and epidemic is that an epidemic is an event of disease that is actively spreading, whereas a pandemic is seen to affect the whole world.)
Today, as we face another pandemic that we have all become well-versed and immersed in, that is COVID-19, we have seen historic levels of government investment globally to stop its spread.
As we monitor the varied responses globally, we are also seeing the fissures of previous forms of inequality that underlay and perpetuate violence against women and its global impact. There is a marked difference between the ability to respond to the health crisis depending on whether you are looking at the so-called global north or the global south. There is likewise a difference in fatality rates between and among races, age groups, classes and genders, that corresponds to the inequality that exists within nations.
While we see western countries commit large-scale welfare investments to support the economy and even fight the rise in violence against women, we also see globally, large-scale surveillance and authoritarian responses. We see human rights threatened, while at the same time, the words “human rights” have also seldom been so close to the tip of everyone’s tongues.
We are in a highly changeable and volatile time, and one in which that other pandemic, the one that Margaret Chan named seven years ago, is emerging as what UN Women is calling the Shadow Pandemic. Never having received the investments that a pandemic requires of states to address it properly, that shadow of violence that always characterized women’s lives, is threatening to engulf women.
Building on the pandemic declaration with respect to violence against women, the World Bank’s gender research unit said, in 2015:
“Sexual exploitation, trafficking, and domestic violence also tend to increase during and after a conflict or crisis, and refugee and internally displaced women and girls are often vulnerable to sexual violence. While those affected by SGBV are overwhelmingly young women, men can also be subject to sexual violence, or be forced to perpetrate sexual violence against others, including their family members.”
COVID-19 is already proving this to be true. At the start of the COVID pandemic, 242 million women and girls had been subjected to gender based violence globally in the previous 12 months. All of the violence represented in this shocking number is perpetrated within domestic relationships. With half of the world’s population reportedly in lockdown for COVID, the threat of worsened violence from which there is now no escape, is real and happening.
In some places, where services for those who are experiencing intimate partner violence exist, initially, an eerie silence fell as women stopped reaching out for help once the requirements to quarantine were issued by governments. Then, it seems, not long after, the dams broke, and expressions of the crisis poured forth in the form of everything from 30-300% increases in demand for assistance for protection from violence. Much of it came from women who have never reached out before. In Canada, where I am writing from, we’ve already seen an increase in women’s fear for their safety at home, and the countries ahead of Canada on the pandemic curve, are reporting what might be a wave of COVID-related domestic killing of women. Harrowingly, Canada’s latest and to date largest mass shooting, began, it now seems clear, with a domestic violence incident. Not having seen femicide in its fullness before the outbreak of COVID-19, risks quite literally, women, children, men and communities. The inattention to femicide outside COVID times has laid the ground for relaxed gun laws, isolated women, depleted community responses —especially in rural and remote communities— making this moment deadly on both pandemic registers.
In the parts of the world seldom heard from in major news media, women are struggling with existing precarity to distribute clear health information intended to save lives, often in conditions without sanitation, clean water or basic food security. Within Canada, long-standing inequalities and rights violations with respect to Indigenous populations mean no running water, over-crowding and lack of healthcare at the time when its needed most.
All the while, women are on the front lines trying to provide continued access to other rights recognized in human rights treaties, such as the Convention to End all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Rights such as, access to accurate reproductive health information; access to education; access to political participation and leadership; protection for rural women; access to employment and substantive legally protected equality. In all, the elements of the treaty lay out the conditions for women’s equality with men on the basis of freedom from discrimination. Interpretations of the Treaty by its authoritative body, the CEDAW Committee, and other human rights bodies, have made clear that freedom from violence against women in international law is both protected as a stand-alone right and embedded within a fulsome, substantive and intersectional set of protections as a form of discrimination against women. CEDAW sets out a robust agenda for what governments need to do for that to be so.
It’s up to us now, as women’s advocates worldwide: will we let the 189 States that have signed onto CEDAW go back to obscuring the pandemic of violence against women we were fighting before COVID-19, or will we demand that the Shadow Pandemic take centre stage, and captivate the world’s attention and finances in a way that attends to the deep fault lines we are seeing starkly revealed today? We know that “the fight to [end] discrimination and violence against women requires a strong partnership between international and national institutions and civil society organizations, including the women’s human rights defenders”.
The Women’s Human Rights Institute is readying for the struggle ahead by planning a new wave of on-line CEDAW training that will equip the world’s women’s advocates with the language and solidarity of a legally binding global instrument that calls for States to invest in eradicating violence against women and gender based violence and to “adopt all necessary measures at the national level”. We hope you will join us.
Post Script & Calls to Action
The United Nations Human Rights Treaties Branch has postponed all upcoming treaty body committee sessions until the end of May in light of the COVID19 pandemic. No formal notification has been shared by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in relation to the 76th CEDAW Session scheduled to start on 22 June 2020 or the 77th CEDAW Session scheduled to start on 19 October 2020.
In the meantime, we’d like to share a call from International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, the key organization that supports civil society engagement with the CEDAW review process, seeking to find out how you, your organisations and the communities you work with are coping with the COVID19 pandemic and its impacts. Are there particular challenges that you are facing? Are there particular issues relating to women’s rights that your government is not paying attention to? Would you be interested in engaging with the CEDAW Committee on these issues? Would you like to join a group call to discuss some of these issues, share your experiences and learn from others?
Please respond to the questionnaire below and let them know by 27 April 2020.
Survey Link: https://forms.gle/tk3QHy56168ddF8M9
In addition, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Ms. Dubravka Šimonović, has released a Call for Submissions from civil society and other relevant actors on COVID-19 and the increase of domestic violence against women. Full details of the call are available here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/call_covid19.aspx
All submissions should be sent to email@example.com as soon as possible, and will be received until 30 June 2020.
Dr. Amanda Dale is an international human rights scholar and activist, with a specialization in access to justice and women’s international human rights. She is a recognized spokesperson and expert in the way law impacts marginalized people’s lives and in women’s rights and violence against women. Amanda holds a Master in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford and a Ph.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School focused on intersectional approaches to women’s international human rights at CEDAW. Follow her on Twitter at @DrAmandaDale1
 World Health Organization, “Executive Summary” Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence (2013), online: <https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/85239/9789241564625_eng.pdf>.
 United Nations Secretary General, “Secretary-General’s remarks on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women [as delivered]” (19 November 2018), online:<https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-11-19/secretary-generals-remarks-international-day-elimination-violence>.
 Trisha Torrey, “Difference Between and Epidemic and a Pandemic”, Very Well Health (13 April 2020), online: <https://www.verywellhealth.com/difference-between-epidemic-and-pandemic-2615168>.
 UN Women, “Covid 19 and ending Violence Against Women and Girls: Examples of Responses from Governments”, Issue Brief (2020), online: < https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf> .
 The World Bank, “A South-South Learning Tour Explores How to Put an End to Sexual and Gender Based Violence” (11 August, 2015), online: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/08/11/a-south-south-learning-tour-explores-how-to-put-an-end-to-sexual-and-gender-based-violence>.
 UN Women, supra note 4, at 2.
 Ibid, at 1.
 Statistics Canada, The Daily, “Canadian Perspectives Survey Series 1: Impacts of COVID-19” (8 April 2020) online <https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200408/dq200408c-eng.htm>.
 Jamie Grierson, “Domestic abuse killings ‘more than double’ amid Covid-19 lockdown” The Guardian (15 April 2020) online:
 Douglas Quan & Steve McKinley, “The Nova Scotia Shootings Began with an Act of Domestic Abuse -And there were red flags before that”, Toronto Star (April 23, 2020) online: < https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/04/23/the-nova-scotia-shootings-began-with-an-act-of-domestic-abuse-and-there-were-red-flags-that-came-before.html>.
 Anne Nuorgam, “COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples”, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs online:< https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html>; Gina Starblanket & Dallas Hunt, “Indigenous communities and COVID-19: The virus may not discriminate, but responses to it do”, The Glove & Mail (27 March 2020), online:< https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-indigenous-communities-and-covid-19-the-virus-may-not-discriminate/>.
 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1249 UNTS 13 art 24 (entred into force: 3 September 1981)[CEDAW, 1979].
CEDAW Image from IWRAW-AP, CEDAW Quick and Concise