Innovating to combat violence against women in the context of COVID19

Press release
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On 17 June 2020, FIDH organised an exchange between women’s rights defenders from France, Mexico, South Africa, and Tunisia, four countries in which feminist organisations reacted quickly to the exacerbation of violence against women linked to the COVID-19 crisis. The discussion aimed to share innovative practices in order to improve the response of associations during the pandemic. More than 300 people joined us for the webinar, demonstrating the need to create spaces to exchange, share experiences and support associations and professionals on the front line to combat violence and support victims

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In Tunisia, from the beginning of lockdown, the national hotline received seven times more calls from women victims of violence. Both the volume of cases and the severity of the violence increased. ATFD, an FIDH member organisation and the main feminist organisation in Tunisia, reacted rapidly in 3 areas:
 strengthening its telephone helplines and remote psychological and legal assistance;
 alerting the government authorities at an early stage by relaying data from the field and calling on them to take urgent decisions: to integrate women’s rights and protection in all measures adopted to respond to the crisis; to provide social assistance to women; to ensure that women have decision-making positions in shaping the response to the pandemic; to activate and support local and community-based services for the protection of women, etc.
 launching a campaign on social networks, in particular Instagram, to inform the general public of the situation, by mobilising artists and high-profile women.

Ahlem Belhadj outlined the following areas for improvement in response to the crisis: strengthening inter-sectoral coordination and taking into account certain forms of violence, such as economic violence, in particular in social assistance measures for women.

According to Ahlem Belhadj, a child psychiatrist and member of ATFD, “The slightest crisis is accompanied by setbacks for women’s rights. Our rights and the progress we have achieved are so fragile. The police and the justice system don’t consider them to be urgent issues. As soon as there’s an opening, patriarchy is there”.

"The slightest crisis is accompanied by setbacks for women’s rights. Our rights and the progress we have achieved are so fragile. The police and the justice system don’t consider them to be urgent issues. As soon as there’s an opening, patriarchy is there”.

Ahlem Belhaj, Child Psychiatrist and member of ATFD

In South Africa, women have also been disproportionately impacted by very strict lockdown measures. At each new stage of lockdown, associations carried out an assessment of the new restrictions in order to adapt medical, judicial and psychosocial care of women survivors of violence.

The first civil society innovation in South Africa was the creation of a Solidarity Fund, a platform dedicated to supporting responses to the health crisis and humanitarian efforts, independent of governments and businesses. This fund, initially created to support the provision of food relief, broadened its mandate and decided to contribute to the fight against gender-based violence. The Fund’s first priorities were to provide personal protection equipment for shelters and Thuthuzela care centres and to finance additional staff and equipment for a telephone helpline and referral mechanism run by the Ministry of Social Development.

The second innovation of feminist grassroots organisations was to facilitate procedures and protection for women, for example through alert mechanisms in the form of coded messages or private WhatsApp groups. Some covered the costs of mobile data to ensure that women have access to the services available on their smartphones. For example, the community action group Data4Women created WhatsApp support groups chaired by social workers who could provide direct assistance to women in need and purchased data for victims. Groups also set up transportation services using their own private cars to drive women to shelters when public transportation was inaccessible.

Sanja Bornman, a lawyer and member of Lawyers for Human Rights, also underlined the importance of exchanging experiences from different contexts and countries in order to identify effective strategies to combat violence against women and stated that, “regional and international mobilisation makes it possible to increase pressure on our governments”.

In Mexico, in the first three months of 2020, almost 1,000 women and girls were victims of murder, a quarter of which were feminicides, i.e. crimes motivated by hatred and gender discrimination. 54,000 cases of violence within the family were reported, and more than 15,000 cases of sexual violence. These figures do not take into account the very large number of undocumented or unreported cases, estimated to be three to eight times higher than the official figures. According to Rodolfo Dominguez, lawyer and coordinator of the association Justicia, Derechos humanos y Género, “We are dealing with an extreme, complex and diverse situation and we need innovative responses. We must give priority to women who are facing not only the health crisis but also gender-based violence on a daily basis. Women and feminist movements must lead the way”.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation Justicia, Derechos humanos y Género worked to enforce protection orders to protect women in situations of violence and to prevent extreme violence and feminicide. In order to adapt to the situation, the association is developing an online tool, which provides victims with a form to apply for an urgent and immediate protection order, addressed to the authorities. Protection orders must be granted by the competent authority, either a judge or the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The document contains sections to be completed by the victims, in which they describe the acts of violence and answer a short questionnaire on risk assessment. The document enables requests to be made for specific protection measures, including the forced departure of the perpetrator from the victim’s home and the prohibition on committing acts of violence, communicating with or approaching the victim.

In France, the level of violence in society remains very high. 250 women are victims of rape every day, and one woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner every two and a half days. The #NousToutes collective has used online tools that are particularly relevant in times of lockdown to take action on the issue of violence.

First, just before the lockdown period, the NousToutes collective conducted a survey on consent within couples, which showed the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence rooted in heterosexual couple relationships. Within 10 days, more than 100,000 people, mostly young women, responded to the survey. The results showed that 9 out of 10 women had experienced pressure from their partner, and that one in two women had had penetrative sex without consent - the definition of rape. 80% said they had been subjected to violence by their partner, whether verbal, physical or sexual.

This survey had a strong impact on society at two points in time: firstly, when the questionnaire was published online, with numerous people saying that they became aware of the violence they had suffered in the process of filling out the questionnaire; and secondly, when the report was published and the results presented, since almost all of the young women who responded to the survey reported having been subjected to pressure during sexual intercourse. This survey, which used a form developed using a robust methodology (involving researchers specialising on the issue of consent, statisticians and activists and tested by 8,000 people before its launch), is a powerful tool for viral dissemination and, through entirely online mobilisation, has brought this issue to the forefront of public attention.

The second tool developed by #NousToutes was the establishment of free online training courses open to everyone. Between April and May, 20,000 people received online training on the issue of violence. The training course was uploaded on the #NousToutes page and viewed by 68,000 people. Tools were made available to citizens, again using only digital means and voluntary work.

The mass nature of the training sessions helped to raise the level of awareness about violence within the population."

trainer and coordinator at the #NousToutes collective

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