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The Two Pandemics: Covering gender-based violence during COVID-19

“Covering gender-based violence is among the most challenging tasks a journalist will come across,” explains Rana Husseini, an award-winning Jordanian journalist, author, and human rights activist who has been influential in bringing so-called honour crimes against women to public attention while encouraging tougher penal code for such crimes. “During crises like COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes even more difficult to capture the nuances of these stories without doing harm to survivors.”

 

Husseini is one of few Arab journalists who regularly cover gender-based violence (GBV), which has become more prevalent around the globe against the backdrop of COVID-19, according to reports by numerous organizations working to combat it. 

 

During pandemics, lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions on movement are deemed necessary preventative health measures that can save millions of lives. However, for women and girls these measures are also sources of increased risk of violence and death, as they not only exacerbate GBV-related risks but can also significantly limit the ability of survivors to shield themselves from their abusers, all the while limiting their access to life-saving support. This has also been documented repeatedly during previous epidemics throughout the globe; women took on additional physical, psychological and time burdens as caregivers. 

To shed light on these essential topics, UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is marking International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict by hosting an online symposium for journalists from Arab and non-Arab countries. Conceived with journalists and media professionals in mind, the objective of this virtual media symposium is to shed light on the underlying connections between health crises, their resultant preventative measures, gender equality, and gender-based violence. The event will also highlight the importance of covering these issues extensively, and how to do so in a professional, responsible and ethical manner — what is referred to as a survivor-centred approach.  

 

Seeing COVID-19 from a gender perspective 

 

While it is often said that viral pandemics “do not discriminate,” they nonetheless exacerbate existing inequalities, often to substantial extents. In the case of women and girls, who already grapple with inequalities in fundamental rights, duties and responsibilities, pandemics and their resultant safety measures and economic fallout introduce an array of challenges that are uniquely the result of systemic gender inequalities and discrimination. 

Women, for instance, are more likely to contract the new coronavirus than men, simply because they make up the majority of healthcare workers — up to 70 percent globally, according to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), and up to 90 percent in China’s Hubei province, where the  first cases were discovered. Analyses of past pandemics have also shown that gender significantly influences both patterns of the exposure to infectious agents and the treatment of infectious disease. As a WHO report issued in 2007 found, “gender roles influence where men and women spend their time, and the infectious agents they come into contact with, as well as the nature of exposure, its frequency and its intensity.”

Meanwhile, women typically inherit additional caregiving responsibilities during health crises, even in progressive communities with higher gender-equality markers,which makes them even more susceptible to contracting the virus as it is most easily transmitted among family members with frequent physical contact. Even from an economic perspective, women may be more at risk of suffering the impact of the pandemic given that they make up a significant portion of part time and informal laborers, both of which are livelihood categories that are more likely to disappear during recessions. 

Most importantly, women and girls suffer the brunt of the impact with regards to GBV-related risks. Reports from various countries in the Arab states region continue to show that COVID-19 has fuelled a sharp rise in gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence. First-hand accounts from countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia — to name but a few — show an alarming pattern of growth in reports of violence against women, further underscoring the inherent inequalities that still exist even in countries with relative geopolitical stability. These reports also demonstrate the critical role that journalism plays in bringing these stories to light, amplifying the voices of women and girls, and raising the awareness of the public and policymakers on fundamental inequalities that may be imperceptible on a day-to-day basis but become increasingly more apparent when socioeconomic systems are disrupted.

 

How to tell these stories

 

“This will definitely require more ingenuity on behalf of the journalist,” explains Joumana Haddad - a renowned Lebanese journalist, writer and women’s rights activist - on the potential for reporting on GBV during a pandemic like COVID-19. “Still, it is not only possible, but necessary work.”  

When it comes to covering GBV during pandemics, the general principles outlined by numerous human rights organizations and actors still apply. All reporting should follow a survivor-centred approach that empowers survivors by putting them at the centre of the reporting process.  Dealing with gender-based violence survivors in a survivor-centred manner involves prioritizing their best interests and applying the guiding principles of safety, confidentiality, respect and non-discrimination. 

During pandemics like COVID-19, in which survivors have severely limited access to life-saving services, it becomes increasingly difficult to share their stories safely and responsibly . As such, journalists need to exercise additional care when attempting to perform any investigative reporting, and to consistently refer to the numerous guidelines provided by humanitarian actors. The United Nations Population Fund Arab States Hub has released a number of support products on the subject, the latest of which is the second edition of Reporting on Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Settings: A Journalist’s Handbook. UNFPA has since published a companion guide to the handbook specifically tackling coverage on GBV during health crises. This guide provides a solid framework in this regard, particularly with regards to approaching organizations that are specialized in dealing with GBV cases instead of attempting to contact survivors directly. Journalists also need to be mindful that public health measures such as lockdowns, curfews and quarantines make it much more difficult for survivors to evade retaliation if their identities become public, particularly if they choose to speak out on the violence they have experienced.

Reporting on gender-based violence during COVID-19 and other health crises does not have to rely on interviews with survivors. For example, journalists can focus on exploring the contributing factors that are leading to cases of domestic violence, such as specific cultural, legal or economic factors and practices that undermine the rights of women and girls. Journalists can also explore the economic fallout of health crises through a gender lens by highlighting the disproportionate risks faced by women and girls, including that of sexual exploitation and abuse. These angles of discussion are important for forming a comprehensive understanding of these issues, and they can be easily approached through features that rely on expert insights from GBV specialists, human rights groups, service providers and other GBV actors.     

 

Join the conversation 

 

The media symposium is taking place on Thursday, June 18, 2020, just ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict the day after and the Brussels conference on Supporting Syria and the Region on 30 June. In addition to providing a clearer, more gender-sensitive examination of the subject, the event will feature real-life insights to facilitate reporting by journalists, including insights from gender-based violence specialists, service providers, women’s rights activists, and others. The interactive discussion will serve as both a primer and an open platform for journalists, humanitarians, activists and lawmakers to explore the issue constructively, with the shared purpose of encouraging and increasing quality coverage. 

 

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