While the global attention and efforts are focused on dealing with the COVID 19 pandemic, the ever-present human rights crisis named Gender Based Violence (GBV) is steadily peaking in its incidence and intensity! The strategies to effectively delay the transmission of COVID 19 virus have led to lockdowns, loss of incomes, lack of access to many clinical services (even when these are essential services), lack of psychosocial support and multiple types of deprivations which lead to an overall human rights violation on a large scale. Family Planning Association of India has developed multiple types of interventions to reach out to these survivors and support them through existing mechanisms and designing new strategies. The incidence of violence is significantly increasing even after COVID 19 measures are relaxed, GBV intervention programmes will need to be redesigned and recalibrated to ensure that we reach the most underserved, who may be hidden in plain sight!
Dr Kalpana Apte, Secretary General, Family Planning Association of India
Tailoring Responses, Tailoring Screening Tools!
In India, the reported incidences of violence received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) doubled during the lockdown (started in last week of March 2020). As complaints surged, the NCW announced a WhatsApp number to receive complaints, to be more accessible to women who find themselves in abusive homes. Triggered by these increased cases due to the pandemic, Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) has moved swiftly to adapt its services to capture and respond to the specific forms of violence being reported.
Gender based Violence screening and counselling is a standard practice in FPAI clinics, an integral part of the IPPF wide Integrated Package of Essential Services (IPES). Based on experiences shared by branches; front line workers and community mobilisers about women and girls experiencing newer forms of violence, FPAI has tailored its GBV screening tool to better meet the needs of the survivors. The adapted ‘GBV Screening -COVID 19 Response 2020’ form lists the new forms of violence and coercion being reported in the context of the pandemic.
These pertain to:
- Lack of availability of essential commodities during the lockdown
- Forced to go out of the house for errands thereby increasing the risk of infection
- Threatened to be exposed to the infection
- Prevented from adopting prevention measures like use of mask, hand sanitizer
- Forced to adopt unscientific methods of infection prevention
FPAI intends to generate evidence against the shifting forms of violence and tailor its service delivery to best meet the needs of survivors. The data being provincially collected for the period April to July 2020 is currently being analyzed. Counsellors are being trained using virtual forums to build their capacities to provide information and referral services on the new forms of violence being reported by women and girls.
One of the first and only organization of its kind in Bhutan, RENEW is dedicated to ensuring that the rights of women and families remain a priority and has taken a leadership role for the COVID response in the country. Setting the priority early, Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck RENEW Patron endorsed that the pandemic response must address gender- based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls. Such a pronouncement at the highest echelons of the government ensured that health sector response to gender-based violence services continue to receive priority throughout the crisis situation.
Recognizing the need to build capacities of service providers and sensitizing the most vulnerable populations about the pandemic, RENEW in collaboration with Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan is developing a module on COVID 19 and Gender based Violence. This module includes range of COVID19 related information including how to stay safe at home and at the facility (shelter home), provision of legal, health and economic support and psychological first aid. The module comes at an appropriate time wherein evidence from the National Commission of Women and Children has already alerted about an increase in GBV cases which is further corroborated by data from RENEW- an increase of almost 20% cases handled by the counselling center. Building on its coalition work with other partners in the country, notably the UN agencies, RENEW is part of the National Contingency Plan on Gender Based Violence developed in response to COVID 19. The significance of the National Plan lies in the fact that it coordinates multi agency response avoiding duplication with thematic leads identified for each core sector. At the same time, it amplifies efforts; pools resources towards a common agreed goal and priorities GBV response to the pandemic. Besides RENEW, UNDP, UNICEF, Ministry of Health, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), UNFPA, Royal Court of Justice, Royal Bhutan Police and the National Commission on Women and Children are key members of this Plan.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exceptional experience exposing our vulnerability to the social issues such as sexual and reproductive health, mental health and abuse caused by gender-based violence. It has opened our eyes to understand the underlying complexities and the need for more specialized counseling and protection services. Post COVID-19 we look forward to a new world and a new era better prepared to address GBV." Ms Tshering Dolkar, Executive Director, RENEW
A COVID19 ready GBV responsive system
On an average, one in four women experience emotional, physical, or sexual violence in Pakistan accounting for approximately eight million women grappling with various forms of violence every year. The risk of violence has further increased as economic and social pressures mount amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Protection and response services are also under pressure. As health systems try to respond to the pandemic, collaborative partnerships show how best this can be achieved. Rahnuma-Family Planning Association of Pakistan has been at the forefront both for responding to the COVID crisis, as well as to GBV. Close coordination and relationships with all Provincial Women Development Departments, critical presence in Taskforce like the LSBE Task Force (Government of Punjab) and coalitions such as National Parliamentarians Caucus, Pakistan Alliance for Post Abortion Care (PAPAC), National Youth Network, Alliance Against Child Marriage have been mobilized to keep the focus on GBV and ensure institutional response. Such coalesced efforts have resulted in the government, despite facing challenges in resources, to keep national helplines operational and publicizing it through various mediums so that it reaches the ones who need it the most.
 PDHS 2017-2018
 Connecting women with safety in Pakistan at a time of COVID-19 – and beyond, 19 April 2020, UNFPA
A critical link between survivors and services
The COVID 19 pandemic has compromised access to SRH information and education as social distancing measures and restrictions prevent the use of traditional face-to-face interaction between providers and clients. Under such circumstances, digital interventions through a range of channels and platforms including SMS, applications , social media, and hotlines characterize the new face of service delivery.
Family Planning Association of Bangladesh (FPAB), like many other Member Associations in the South Asia Region has quickly adapted to this change. It has invested in leveraging changes in service delivery as a response to the COVID-19 situation by expanding its teleconsultation and counselling for SRH and GBV services. These services are operational in all 21 clinics of FPAB. Besides, information on SRH services including contraception, abortion (both MMR and surgical); linkages to GBV services including referrals comprise an essential component. FPAB has effectively leveraged its cadre of committed 1260 Reproductive Health Promoters (RHPs) who function as frontline workers providing information and contraceptives to communities. The RHPs who are drawn from the same community where they function play an important role in linking women to these services. It is through their routine visits (though reduced in number now and with full protective measures) that they create awareness in the community on tele consultation facility available in clinics in their respective areas for GBV survivors. Given the trust and continued relationship that the RHPs have with the survivors in their community, many women who need such support services have been linked to the clinic and onward to referral services as required. For referral services, FPAB has relied on its partnership with organisations like Bangladesh Legal Services Authority, Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha and other NGO partners. A Hotline service for providing e-counselling for GBV and SRH has been set up as a COVID specific response. These calls are handled by trained counsellors of the clinics. There are ongoing efforts to strengthen these services and secure more resources to transition from a central hotline service to a more decentralized SDP level service.