By Kirthi Jayakumar
The global rise in domestic and gender-based violence with the lockdowns in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 are testament to the adverse gendered impact of a public health disaster. World over, domestic violence helplines have reported surges, transnegative and homonegative violence is on the rise, and both “homes” and journeys back home are not safe places. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, there is a dangerous reality threatening women and non-binary people in conflict zones.
Armed conflict, a pandemic, violence, and inequality
The impact of armed conflict, the pandemic, extant social structures of inequality, and the threat of violence cannot be examined, construed, or even engaged with in silos. The trauma of violence and armed conflict on the one hand and the rapid transmission of COVID-19 on the other pose major threats to the life, and physical and mental health of women and non-binary persons. Great burdens have been imposed by the pandemic on the medical and healthcare systems world over, and in conflict zones the burden is doubled given the strained infrastructure owing to war. Access to reproductive healthcare, protection from sexual violence, and the challenge of starvation are some of the enduring challenges women and non-binary persons face.
Armed conflict affects the roles and positions of women and non-binary persons in society. Violence targeting individuals on their sexual and gender identities, expressions, performances, and practices exists in peacetime and is amplified manifold in wartime – a testament to the idea of a continuum. The pandemic and armed conflict together place a heavy domestic burden on women’s shoulders, and either isolates non-binary persons further or forces them to present and perform gender expressions and identities that go against their self-determined identities. For example, in Yemen, the practice of Mahram prevents women from accessing public services in peacetime – and this is exacerbated in wartime (Oxfam 2016). Sexual violence targeting non-binary persons in the height of the armed conflict in Syria continues unabated, informed by peacetime attitudes of heteronormativity (HRW 2020).
Access to a means of livelihood is restricted even further: the idea of “working from home” is a privilege reserved for those that can access the internet, within peacetime. Refugees and displaced persons remain vulnerable to sexual violence and exposure to the virus, especially seeing as shelter and access to healthcare are rendered either entirely impossible or severely limited. In a study by We Exist (2020), a network of Syrian civil society organizations, Syrian women interviewed had indicated that they felt like they were caught between war and the fear of COVID-19 – something they indicated was a “new way to die.” In the words of one of the women interviewed, after surviving “chemical attacks, constant bombings, starvation, sieges, and forced displacement, a virus is the least of our concerns” (We Exist 2020).
Access to healthcare is rendered difficult in armed conflict – and in times of a pandemic when medical providers are stretched thin in countries that are not embroiled in armed conflict, the situation is far worse in the midst of a conflict zone. For example, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) noted that over 5,600 mobile clinics and community-based centres offering sexual and reproductive healthcare in 64 countries, including Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan, had to close down due to the COVID-19 pandemic (IPPF 2020). The healthcare system in Yemen has come close to collapsing entirely (WHO, 2020).
A route toward change?
Armed conflict, disaster, and environmental challenges present enabling environments for sexual violence targeting women and non-binary persons. Humanitarian emergencies amplify what already prevails in peacetime – enabled by the absence of security sector support and the breakdown in administrative, judicial, and other related systems in the state. The severity of the impact of sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies is amplified especially in times when multiple challenges strike together, such as the current state of conflict zones with the COVID-19 pandemic raging strong.
A firm commitment to acknowledging gendered experiences and challenges that emerge with humanitarian crises – be they armed conflicts or pandemics – and a dedicated approach to acting on that commitment are but basic essentials to address this situation.
Clugston and Spearing (2020) advocated that the focus should be on “(a) funding women’s grassroots organizations and networks in conflict-affected countries, (b) protecting women on the frontline of the COVID-19 response, (c) prioritizing programs to prevent and respond to GBV, and (d) empower women at all levels to be involved in decision making and design of the COVID-19 response.” However, going deeper, it is critical to examine the structural and cultural factors that enable the prevalence of gender-based and sexual violence to thrive in peacetime – and to use that understanding to both inform law and policy in peacetime, wartime, and in addressing dynamics of disaster. Only then, is sustainable change possible.
Clugston, Naomi and Michelle Spearing (2020). “The COVID-19 Response: what has women, peace and security got to do with it?” https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2020/05/07/the-covid-19-response-what-has-women-peace-and-security-got-to-do-with-it/
Human Rights Watch (2020). “They Treated Us in Monstrous Ways” https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/07/29/they-treated-us-monstrous-ways/sexual-violence-against-men-boys-and-transgender
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) (2020). “COVID-19 Pandemic Cuts Access to Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare for Women Around the World.” https://www.ippf.org/node/4782.
Oxfam (2016). “Picking up the Pieces.” https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/bp-yemen-picking-up-the-pieces-210916-en.pdf
We Exist (2020). “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Syrians: An analysis by Syrian Civil Society.” Half of Syria. https://bit.ly/31kWzLu.
World Health Organization (2020). Health system in Yemen close to collapse. https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/93/10/15-021015/en/