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Opinion Gender-based violence is a global issue we can no longer ignore

Trócaire’s Caoimhe de Barra says it’s time for global action on gender-based violence.

GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE (GBV) is one of the most pervasive and fundamental human rights violations. It undermines the health, dignity, and security of its victims.

The statistics speak for themselves. Globally, it’s estimated that one-in-three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime – 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day. Yet GBV remains shrouded in a culture of silence and inaction.

While the spotlight has been on GBV in Ireland with the tragic deaths of seven women through violence in the last 12 months, and the powerful RTÉ Primetime Investigates special, this is a crisis that is rampant in countries all around the world. It is a pandemic within a pandemic, affecting millions of women and girls globally.

Women in developing countries

Even though GBV knows no social, economic, or national boundaries, it is women and girls in developing countries who are hugely affected, hit by the triple impact of Covid-19, climate change and crisis.

Covid-19 has led to a surge in GBV, with millions of women and girls experiencing limited access to functioning services, exposing them to risks. This is compounded by long-running conflicts and the continued acceleration of the climate crisis which have seen livelihoods destroyed and people displaced, multiplying risk factors for GBV.

Evidence of rising GBV in fragile contexts is clear. In Lebanon, the effects of a crippled economy, which has resulted in fuel shortages, electricity blackouts, and lack of access to food, water, healthcare and education – can be seen clearly in the rates of GBV.

Trocaire 1 A group of women in Balaka District in southern Malawi taking part in a Village and Savings Loans group run by Trócaire in association with partners. Trocaire Trocaire

In 2020, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) reported a 102% increase in calls to their domestic violence hotline number in Lebanon. There was also an increase of 3% in the levels of intimate partner violence (IPV) reported, presumably due to the outbreak of Covid-19 as the stats can be correlated with when lockdown measures were put in place in 2020. This is only a part of the picture as statistically fewer than 40% of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort.

Displaced people

I had the privilege of spending five days with the Trócaire team and partners in refugee camps in the Bekaa valley in Eastern Lebanon recently and met women and girls living in awful conditions who are suffering huge levels of trauma and GBV.

The refugees are neither welcome in Lebanon, nor can they return to Syria, for security reasons. Trócaire’s work with partners SAWA and Women Now is crucial to supporting the right of refugees, especially women, to live in dignity and freedom.

Similarly, data analysis in eight Asian countries shows that internet searches relating to violence against women rose significantly during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Trocaire 3 Caoimhe de Barra with human rights defender Blanca Soto from the indigenous Tolupan community in Honduras. Blanca is under threat every day. Dozens of her community have already been killed for protecting their land. Giulia Vuillermoz Giulia Vuillermoz

Searches relating to physical violence, including keywords such as “physical abuse signs”, “violent relationship”, and “cover bruises on face” increased 47% in Malaysia, 63% in the Philippines and 55% in Nepal between October 2019 and September 2020. Searches for help for victims using keywords such as “domestic violence hotline” increased in almost all countries, including a 70% rise in Malaysia.

We can’t look away

However, despite the evidence of a global GBV crisis, the international community still is not taking heed. It is estimated that less than 1% of funding to UN humanitarian plans supports GBV prevention and response activities.

The Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGBV), of which I am Chair, is an alliance of human rights, humanitarian, and development organisations, Irish Aid and the Defence Forces. It was formed in 2005 to address the high levels of violence perpetrated in international conflict and crisis situations. Last week it launched a new strategic plan for 2021 – 2026 in which it set out its priorities to tackle GBV. All of the ICGBV member organisations are seeing the impact of GBV on women and girls in their daily work.

To achieve lasting change, our new strategy makes recommendations in three areas. The promotion of GBV prevention programming and gender equality to address the power imbalances between males and females; advancing GBV risk mitigation within humanitarian and development work; and strengthening the response to GBV through survivor-centred service provision.

In recent years, Ireland has demonstrated its commitment and leadership in eradicating GBV. At a national level, this leadership was borne out with the passage of legislation on Image Based Sexual Abuse in 2020, and the inclusion of Coercive Control in the Domestic Violence Act in 2018. I also welcome Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s commitment that the imminent Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence is to take a zero-tolerance approach in Ireland.

Trocaire 2 Katherine Kalula from Balaka District in southern Malawi has seen her life changed since she started engaging with a women’s empowerment programme run by Trócaire in association with partners. Trocaire Trocaire

On an international level, the Government has stated that ending gender-based violence is a foreign policy priority for Ireland and has committed €15 million per year to fight GBV – including FGM and GBV in emergency contexts – and to provide supports for survivors.

It is critical, especially with our seat on the UN Security Council, that the Government leverages its political and leadership capital to address GBV and advance gender equality at an international level, alongside the important work at a national level.

Now more than ever, this vital work will require increased funds to ensure that we create a world where survivors are supported and protected, a world where women’s rights are valued, and a world beyond fear for women and girls. Governments and agencies must do better to fund GBV prevention and response work. Gender-based violence is a global issue we cannot continue to ignore. We must act now to ensure a world free of violence for women and girls everywhere.

Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire and Chair of the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGBV) whose members include: ActionAid Ireland; Christian Aid Ireland; Concern Worldwide; Irish Defence Forces; GOAL; IFRAH Foundation; Irish Aid; Irish Red Cross; Oxfam Ireland; Plan International Ireland; Self Help Africa; Trócaire and World Vision Ireland.


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