LOS ANGELES, California — According to the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2021, one in five women experience gender-based violence during a humanitarian crisis. As humanitarian crises disproportionately impact women and girls, the Keeping Women and Girls Safe From the Start Act specifically seeks to prevent gender-based violence experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and future humanitarian crises. U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-M.D.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lisa Murkowkski (R-A.L.), as well as nine other members of the Senate, introduced the bill to improve U.S. support for programs that protect women in humanitarian crises, especially displaced or stateless women who experience violence amid catastrophe.
The Shadow Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, economic stress, lockdowns, health concerns and loss of security heightened social tensions and gender-based violence. Because of reduced access to prevention services and increased violence throughout the pandemic, 243 million women and girls experienced violence during the first 12 months of enforced lockdowns. Many organizations refer to this global increase in violence toward women and girls as the “shadow pandemic.”
As governments enforced lockdowns throughout the world and health facilities reached full capacity, U.N. Women reported that France saw a 30% increase in reports of domestic violence since its lockdown on March 17. Domestic violence reports also increased by 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus and 33% in Singapore, according to U.N. Women.
While reports of gender-based violence increased, the surge of COVID-19 cases required domestic violence shelters to limit capacities due to social distancing measures and lockdowns. As a result of these restrictions, the UNFPA projected that disruptions in prevention efforts to end female genital mutilation and child marriage will result in 2 million preventable cases of FGM and 13 million preventable child marriages to occur by 2030.
The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act
When sponsoring the Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2021, Sen. Jeff Merkley stated concern about increased violence against women and girls during humanitarian crises and COVID-19. Additionally, Merkley voiced the need to empower, educate and provide leadership opportunities for women. These measures will prevent gender-based violence in the future.
According to the UNFPA, about 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence occur for every six months of lockdown. The act supports immediate, life-saving medical and psychological care, as well as long-term care for women in humanitarian crises. These efforts aim to reduce the number of additional gender-based violence cases and empower survivors.
More women and girls are vulnerable to conflict and humanitarian emergencies. Therefore, the act aims to prevent a myriad of gender-based violence situations. These include rape and sexual assault, domestic and intimate partner violence, child marriage, trafficking, harassment and exploitation.
The Legislation Response
This legislation supports government initiatives that provide emergency-response to millions of women and girls who experienced violence throughout the pandemic. This includes resources to identify gender-based violence, support survivors of violence, provide assistance to hard-to-reach populations, deploy standards and guidelines for humanitarian response and reduce the risk and impacts of violence toward women and girls.
Not only does this legislation include immediate results, but it also seeks to empower and educate women. The act strives to impact women in vulnerable situations after humanitarian crises. Providing long-term care for survivors of violence and leadership opportunities for women empowers women and girls to avoid future situations of gender-based violence.
– Amanda Frese