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Covid-19 Is a Feminist Issue

August 19, 2020

By Priya Dhanani

Across the Asia-Pacific and around the globe, there is emerging evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on women and girls, particularly women of color, including on their economic opportunities, rights and security, and voice and leadership in decision-making. Tough measures to control the disease—such as closing businesses, restricting personal freedoms, and reducing community interaction—have caused fear, anxiety, and crushing economic uncertainty, all of which are shown to contribute to violence against women and girls as well as LGBTI+ persons. Gender-based violence (GBV) has increased at an alarming rate during the pandemic.

The fear, anxiety, and crushing economic uncertainty of the pandemic are causing rising rates of gender-based violence. (Photo: IAWG)

A recent interactive webinar hosted by The Asia Foundation explored feminist strategies to mitigate the gendered effects of the pandemic. Here, in the form of three takeaways, is a glimpse of that urgent discussion.

Recognizing the specific ways that Covid-19 affects marginalized groups and people of different genders is essential to address the impacts of this health emergency. Marginalized groups already pushed to the margins of society, including adolescent girls, migrant women, displaced boys, and LGBTI+ individuals living with a disability, have unique vulnerabilities that are not consistently assessed or addressed in global frameworks and policies, and they are being pushed further to the periphery by the global pandemic. The crisis has closed many shelters and weakened support systems and services for survivors of GBV, and domestic violence in particular, leaving women and girls trapped in dangerous situations. In places already suffering from inadequate healthcare systems, weak rule of law, and high levels of violence against marginalized populations, this can be precarious and even deadly. In Mongolia, The Asia Foundation has developed a GBV resource booklet to address these challenges and is working with local partners to make the information available through their facilities and networks. The booklet includes information on the referral system, safety planning, and support services for women, persons with disabilities, and LGBTI+ communities.

In a time of conflict and crisis, assume that marginalized and disadvantaged groups face compounding violence, including gender-based violence, even when data isn’t available. Globally, studies of GBV in times of crisis have highlighted the need for an intersectional approach that recognizes how multiple factors such as gender, ethnicity, and disability interact to shape vulnerability and resilience. But there is still insufficient data, including sex-disaggregated data, on the pathways of violence and how a crisis can exacerbate different forms of GBV—particularly this crisis, which has further deprived women of agency and power. Yet, we know that crises have historically aggravated preexisting gender inequities and power hierarchies, further isolating women and girls from the people and resources that can help them. So, while data is fundamental to program development, we do not need to wait for conclusive data to build a survivor-centered GBV response into our work. In China, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, The Asia Foundation has pivoted its data collection to focus on violence against women and girls, working closely with local groups and GBV experts to better understand the local context.

Engage and collaborate with feminist movements to effectively prevent and respond to GBV during the Covid-19 pandemic. GBV program responses often fail because they lack a broader approach to achieving transformative change in gender norms. The power structures and norms that underpin gendered inequalities such as GBV are deeply intertwined and need to be addressed systematically for interventions to succeed. This is where local women’s rights organizations and feminist movements can play a key role in the Covid-19 response, by providing nuanced insights into the local intricacies of cultural and institutional gender norms. For instance, in Timor-Leste, The Asia Foundation is working with the growing movement of young feminists to build their capacity for online activism, help them create safe, feminist spaces for digital collaboration, and provide technical support for SASA!, a community mobilization initiative developed by Raising Voices to prevent violence against women and HIV. The Asia Foundation also hosted a webinar in June, “The Hidden Pandemic: Addressing GBV in Asia during Covid-19.” Panelists from the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement and the International Women’s Development Agency urged supporting women’s rights organizations that contribute to strong, locally based feminist movements that can press for transformative change.

(Photo: United States Institute for Peace)

In addition to recognizing the growing incidence of GBV during the present crisis and the importance of supporting women’s rights and feminist organizations, we also need to plan for future stresses, such as the long-term effects of Covid-19, economic disruptions, and other health or climate disasters, so that they don’t lead once again to spiking rates of GBV or the disruption of services for survivors. This crisis will no doubt have long-lasting effects on the struggle for gender equality for women and girls worldwide. We need to prioritize a feminist strategy, support women’s movements, and bring women’s voices and leadership to the forefront. Let’s rethink, reimagine, and reboot—together.

View The Asia Foundation webinar “The Hidden Pandemic: Addressing GBV in Asia during Covid-19.”

Priya Dhanani is a senior program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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