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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

COVID-19 Pandemic Exacerbates Violence Against Refugee Women and Girls

This post first apeared on New Security Beat.

By Chanel Lee

A refugee woman carries her child in the makeshift refugee camp of Idomeni, at the Greek – Macedonian border, Giannis Papanikos/

Currently, refugee women and girls are facing three concurrent crises: their ongoing humanitarian crisis, the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the invisible crisis of gender-based violence (GBV). COVID-19 has severely worsened various dimensions of inequality for refugee women and girls. A 2020 report found that 73 percent of forcibly displaced women interviewed across 15 African countries reported elevated cases of domestic or intimate partner violence due to the pandemic. In addition, 51 percent reported sexual violence and 32 percent observed a rise in early and forced marriages.

The unique circumstances of quarantine, lockdowns, and physical distancing brought on by the pandemic along with existing stressors from dealing with a humanitarian crisis have substantially exacerbated refugee women’s risk of violence and drastically disrupted the lives and futures of refugee women and girls. With refugee women and girls uniquely positioned to face various forms of violence, these overlapping crises must be addressed using an intersectional lens that considers multiple axes of structural marginalization and oppression including, but not limited to, race, gender, class, socioeconomic status, disability, and migrant status.

GBV in refugee populations was a significant issue long before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2019 global systematic review, the prevalence of sexual violence among refugees and asylum seekers was as high as 99.8 percent in some areas. Among those reporting sexual violence, 89 percent are women, making sexual violence a heavily gendered issue. Due to societal stigma around gender-based violence, instances of violence are likely underestimated, especially in areas where there may not be robust reporting or data collection on gender-based violence.

COVID-19 Pandemic Exacerbates Gender-Based Violence in Refugee Communities

Lockdown orders and movement restrictions put in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have made it easier for violence to occur unseen. Social isolation is a major risk factor for violence because it limits access to support services and increases the risk of coercive control by abusive partners. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where quarantine measures similar to those during the COVID-19 pandemic were implemented, women and young girls became vulnerable to sexual coercion, exploitation, and abuse. These measures have also disrupted access to health, legal, and social services including shelters, counseling, and sexual and reproductive health services, leaving many refugee women and girls experiencing violence without protection or support.

COVID-19 has also enhanced economic insecurities due to a loss of employment opportunities. Economic insecurity in a relationship is a strong predictor for intimate partner violence. Moreover, financial restrictions or limitations may make it harder for victims to escape an abusive household, thereby perpetuating the ongoing cycle of violence. Financial instability is also associated with sex trafficking. By reducing opportunities for economic independence, COVID-19 has intensified risks of violence against refugee women and girls.

Migration also exacerbates violence and migrant women and children are particularly at risk. Due to COVID-19 outbreak fears, many displaced persons have been forced to relocate several times since the start of the pandemic. Violence can occur at many points along the journey of a refugee from the point of departure to life in resettlement. COVID-19 has created more stressors and opportunities for violence by fueling mass migration from pandemic-strained settings.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted planned GBV prevention and response efforts. In 2020, United Nations bodies and governments were forced to suspend their trainings for conflict-related sexual violence due to COVID-19 risks. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the pandemic will cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender-based violence by 2030. Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic, up to 13 million girls will become child brides over the next decade, and an additional 2 million girls will face female genital cutting. While confinement measures proposed under the COVID-19 pandemic are necessary to stop the spread of the virus, they have inadvertently worked to reduce prevention and protection efforts, social services, and care for refugee women and girls.

Strategic Recommendations and Implications

Interventions to address gender-based violence in refugee communities must strengthen social safety nets for women and public investments in women’s health services. Communities can bolster social infrastructure and protections for women. Local and national refugee- and internally displaced people-led, women-led, and women-focused organizations can provide prevention programming to raise awareness of GBV and to promote gender-equitable behaviors and norms among children and adults. They can also train national authorities, service providers, educators, and child services to identify and mitigate the risks of violence.

Governments can partner with these local groups to enhance delivery and coordination of services. At an institutional level, they can integrate gender analysis in national policy and budgets. Governments must prioritize gender-based violence prevention in emergency preparedness and response plans, considering the rise in gender-based violence during situations of social upheaval. Policies must also allocate funding to local networks and community-led organizations so they can continue to provide accessible, survivor-centered services, support, and care for women experiencing violence during the pandemic.

Strategies to eliminate gender-based violence must also target women’s economic empowerment, political participation and leadership, and movement.

To protect women from sexual exploitation and abuse, policies and programming must safeguard women’s role in the economy. These measures could include cash transfer programs and worker protections such as paid leave and child care. Women should also be represented and involved at all levels of leadership and decision-making to inform these efforts. Governments must create safe routes for migrating women and girls to reduce the risk of trafficking and violence. Institutions must also collect gender-disaggregated data on the prevalence of violence and on the need for and uptake of support services.

Addressing gender-based violence is a priority health need in crisis settings that must be carried out through robust and responsive policies and interventions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively magnified already existing issues in refugee populations, and the unique vulnerabilities faced by refugee women and girls during the pandemic has highlighted the need for an intersectional approach to ameliorate inequities on the basis of gender. By centering the voices and lived experiences of those disproportionately impacted, resources and services can be more effectively directed to where the need is greatest.

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