March 2021 marks the first anniversary of the outbreak of Covid-19 in many countries, with all its tragic consequences. For millions of women around the world, this pandemic has produced grievous suffering, exposing them to rising levels of violence and abuse, often endured in silence.
The lockdown and quarantine measures adopted, which are vital to limit the spread of the virus, have also led to an alarming increase in violence against women worldwide. The United Nations estimates that gender violence increased by 30% globally during lockdown. According to the latest data, in Latin America, helplines received 30-50% more calls than before, while in Spain the number of calls for assistance increased by 60% in the last 12 months.
Confined with their abusers, the women exposed to this violence have had even greater difficulty in accessing support networks and care services. Moreover, the economic impact of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected women, has created additional barriers. The massive loss of female employment, both formal and informal, the resulting economic insecurity and the increased burden of care responsibilities have prevented many from leaving their oppressors or from reporting the violence suffered. By the end of this year, for every hundred men living in extreme poverty, there will be 118 women. In many cases of gender violence, the lack of household income is, literally, life-threatening. Without financial independence, women’s vulnerability increases exponentially.
Violence against women is not only a profound injustice, it also drags the social and economic progress of society as a whole
Latin America is one of the most progressive regions in the world in terms of its legislation against gender violence. For example, many countries in this region have adopted new laws or have reformed their criminal codes to classify as femicide the murder of a woman, merely for being a woman. However, much remains to be done throughout the continent to ensure the effective implementation of these laws, to strengthen women’s access to justice and to provide comprehensive support for the victims and survivors of gender violence.
At the present point in time, well into the 21st century, it is intolerable that this “invisible pandemic” should persist, affecting one in three women at some time in their lives and claiming thousands of lives every year. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in 2019 alone, at least 4,640 women were victims of femicide in Latin America, 30% more than the previous year.
Violence against women and girls takes many forms, from the most absolute manifestation, that of femicide, to that which is specifically directed against young girls, such as child marriage or female genital mutilation. It also includes sexual violence exercised in humanitarian contexts and conflict situations, harassment in public spaces and in the workplace, political violence and, of course, intimate partner violence. Many of these aggressions converge in the trafficking of human beings, a worrying phenomenon that must be countered decisively. Women and girls account for over 70% of the victims of trafficking. This scourge, its impunity, the too-frequent silence and the complex international coordination required to combat it, must all be urgently addressed.
No society and no political leader can look the other way. Violence against women is not only a profound injustice, it also drags the social and economic progress of society as a whole. According to the United Nations, the cost of gender-based violence is equivalent to 2% of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Poverty will not be overcome until we all say no to gender violence.
If the present health crisis and its economic consequences are to be overcome, vigorous collective measures must be taken to achieve greater equality between women and men. This was an urgent priority before the pandemic, and it is even more so now; not only as part of the obvious necessity to fight against gender violence and its intolerable impunity, but also to combat all those forces that sustain and perpetuate discrimination and inequality against women, in all areas and at all levels.
Women’s contributions are essential to strengthening our democracies and to making us more resilient to future crises
A society that integrates women and men alike, in politics as well as in the economy, will be not only fairer, but more prosperous, and will enjoy more sustainable growth. The participation and leadership of women in determining public policies is necessary not only to address the specific needs of women and the gender-differentiated impacts of the pandemic, but also because women’s contributions are essential to strengthening our democracies and to making us more resilient to future crises. The economic empowerment of women will generate employment, health and prosperity, both for themselves and for their families, because women tend to invest more in the households. In short, gender equality is a crucial element of our much-needed economic recovery.
To achieve this goal, we need more feminist leaders, to transform institutions and civil society; to deploy a range of public policies promoting real equality between men and women; and to heighten public awareness and support, thus ensuring the success and irreversibility of collective reforms. Institutional actions are much less effective if they are not accompanied by change from below, if they are not complemented by a strong drive of an informed population. We have already seen this in practice, in our response to challenges such as climate change. It was public involvement in the fight for our planet – especially by the younger generations – that really made a difference to change attitudes among public authorities and the private sector.
In recent years, the feminist cause has made great advances but much remains to be done. For this reason, we will take to the streets in ever-greater numbers to call for our rights, to demand real, effective equality. Every year, this sentiment is given voice on March 8, International Women’s Day, with multitudinous demonstrations, in Madrid, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, London and Rabat, and all over the world.
However, the current pandemic is threatening to reverse the gains made, with dire consequences for millions of women around the globe. To prevent this, the UN Women Generation Equality Forum, co-chaired by Mexico and France meeting this week in Mexico City, must call for worldwide support towards this cause and to help transform the reality of millions of women and girls. Their cause is one that should be defended by all – in Ibero-America and elsewhere, in the institutions and in the streets – to make feminism our collective destination.
Arancha González Laya is the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain; Rebeca Grynspan is the secretary-general of the Ibero-American General Secretariat; Marta Lucía Ramírez is the vice president of Colombia; Isabel de Saint Malo is the former vice president of Panama; Patricia Mercado is a Mexican senator and Carmen Arístegui is a Mexican journalist and writer.