Shifting from the shadows of the ‘shadow pandemic’

An illustration of a woman protecting herself as the shadow of a man stands over her, representative of gender based violence


Before COVID-19, 1 in 3 women and girls experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, 1 in 4 adolescent girls across the Pacific and Timor-Leste, reported physical violence, and 1 in 10 reported sexual violence[1]. But now, the shadow pandemic of increased gender-based violence, due to COVID-19 restrictions, is making the situation far worse. According to emerging data, calls to domestic violence helplines have sharply increased in many countries since the COVID-19 outbreak.


The recent report by Plan International (August 2020) "A Better Normal", provides disturbing global pre- and during COVID-19 statistics, estimating another 31 million gender-based violence (GBV) cases. With a further six months of COVID-19 restrictions experienced since the time of reporting, it is expected that cases will now be even higher.

While helping to reduce the spread of the virus, lockdown measures have meant that women and children's mobility and access to essential health and social support services, as well as peer support networks, have been severely curtailed, which can have serious detrimental impacts on women’s autonomy, health and wellbeing, as well as increase the sense of no consequences/impunity by perpetrators for their actions.

We have long known the critical contribution that improved access to WASH can make for women and girls’ safety at home, in their schools and in their communities, this is now more important than ever in the unprecedented times of COVID-19. For example, having access to safe, private and hygienic toilets can go a long way in ensuring they can manage their menstruation with dignity, reduce the risk of physical and sexual violence, and participate in education and employment pathways. Furthermore, as women and girls world-wide largely carry the burden of water collection, accessing water closer to their homes can also reduce the very real risks of violence.

Addressing the increase in violence against women and girls that has been associated with the shadow pandemic is reflected in many Water for Women Fund partners' COVID-19 WASH responses that seek to transform inequalities and do no harm through their WASH programs. These have included: social protection messaging alongside hygiene messaging, developing safeguarding frameworks and GBV referral pathways for staff and communities, working closely with women's rights and disability organisations, inclusive policy and planning, and implementing strategies to empower women and marginalised people in their households, communities and institutions.

One such example is illustrated in WaterAid’s Water for Women project in Papua New Guinea, which has developed a safeguarding approach to supporting staff and families in family violence prevention during these challenging times:


Taking small steps to address the big problem of family violence during COVID-19 - an Insider look at Wateraid's approach for staff


Shifting norms that are, either tacitly or explicitly, supportive of gender inequality and violence against women and girls is something that Water for Women takes very seriously, and the shadow pandemic has helped to shine a light on what we can do in our WASH programs to address this very big problem, and make real and lasting change towards a world free from violence.


Header photo courtesy of

[1] "Unseen and Unsafe" report, July 2019: Save the Children, World Vision, Plan, Child Fund

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