The COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis in human security: battleground at home
The ongoing pandemic, with more than 66 million people infected and over 1.5 million deaths, is an unprecedented challenge to national and global security. Less obvious, however, is a related human crisis that threatens the life and safety of women and children: gender-based violence.
Due to lockdown restrictions in many countries, family homes—the site of gender-based violence—have become a battleground for women and children. The United Nations, recognising this invisible consequence of the pandemic, launched 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, to run from 26 November until 10 December. The UN Secretary-General urged and called for a “cease-fire at home”, to make the prevention and redress of violence against women and girls a key part of national response plans for COVID-19.
Gender-based violence (GBV) has been major problem since long before the pandemic. Globally, about 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, and as many as 38 per cent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. The pandemic, including its severe economic repercussions, has disproportionately affected women and girls with alarming spikes in domestic violence.
Focus on Mongolia
Mongolia is no exception to the above. The pandemic crisis exacerbates already widespread domestic violence in the country. In a 2017 study by the United Nations Population Fund and the National Statistics Office, around 58 per cent of ever-partnered women reported experiencing some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. Nearly one-third of Mongolian women reported being abused by their partners at least once in her lifetime.
Until recently, domestic abuse was not even classified as a crime, commonly charged as “intentional infliction of a bodily injury” or “hooliganism”. The legal change in 2017 has marked an important milestone to curb violence against women, lifting impunity and improving responses. While the efforts are still in their early stages, the government of Mongolia has accelerated the pace of its commitment to curb domestic violence through policies and laws.
More difficult access to services for survivors of GBV
Mongolia implemented COVID-19 precautionary measures and restrictions in late January 2020, the second country in the world to do so after China. While the country was relatively effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, the lengthy and stringent restrictions took a toll on family life. Lockdown conditions gave rise to tensions in relationships that could escalate to abuse, with a steep rise in the number of GBV incidents. Women have been forced to remain at home with perpetrators, and restrictions on movement have made it even more difficult to access services that can help them escape their situations. Police records for the capital city of Ulaanbaatar indicated a 63 per cent increase, while calls to helplines increased up to five times. These numbers are formally reported cases; most are usually not reported.
While reduced mobility during the lockdown hinders access to services, the number of victims requesting shelter services increased 87 per cent and child clients increased by around 32 per cent. The government-operated Child Protection Shelter was overwhelmed by the increased demand, and is operating at 115 per cent capacity. Shelters and one-stop service centres (OSSCs) and helplines nationwide are under strain to provide urgent responses, including emergency services, medical and psychological assessments, and immediate shelter. At present Mongolia has 14 shelters and 15 one-stop service centres (OSSCs) funded by international donor organisations and local governments. The channels to respond to increased demand have remained limited to a 24/7 police hotline and one domestic violence information and counseling hotline run by an NGO.
Difficult access to justice
Accessing justice was problematic for survivors of domestic violence in Mongolia even during pre-pandemic times. This is mainly due to attrition prevalent at every stage of the criminal justice process, from reporting all the way through to the trial stage. In addition, institutional bias and procedural barriers inhibit full and proper investigation and prosecution of cases. Despite the high numbers of reported cases, the number of actual investigated and adjudicated cases remains very low in Mongolia. From all reported domestic violence related incidents, only half were officially registered by the police and just one-third of them were fully investigated, resulting in only 0.35 per cent of all domestic violence related complaints. The pandemic has only exacerbated all of the above: women who seek justice face obstacles ranging from lockdown measures to delays in the legal process due to strained capacity of police overwhelmed by the public safety measures.
Gender-based violence and the national COVID-19 response policy
Following the recent UN pledge as many as 135 countries have adopted measures to prevent or respond to GBV during the pandemic. As signatory to this pledge the Mongolian government has made efforts to address the gender violence crisis. However, a GBV response plan is still not an integral part of the national COVID-19 response plan—manifest in the lack of proactive measures, funding deficiencies, and heavy reliance on and diversion of responsibility to international donors. Finally, preparedness and response planning for the COVID-19 gender-based violence crisis is still largely missing as an integral part of the national response plan.
The Mongolian Parliament adopted a law in April 2020 introducing preventive measures to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. This law mandates the government to provide more state funding to prevent and expand services to the victims of domestic violence such as the one-stop centers and hotlines. However, the current COVID-19 and gender-based violence related measures are predominantly funded and led by international organisations and foreign governments. The UNFPA, the Asian Development Bank and the Canadian government are among the more prominent actors, with the latter providing assistance on projects such as local services to survivors as well as training to COVID-19 frontline workers such as police, border patrol, and health service providers to better detect and properly refer domestic violence survivors for help.
Another important question is whether the current national response measures are gender sensitive and capable of taking women’s perspectives into account. Women are less represented in the current emergency decision-making structure. In the Mongolian case the National Emergency Committee consists of predominantly men from the security sector that favours a securitised approach.
There is a clear need to scale up efforts across a range of sectors, both to prevent violence from happening in the first place and to provide necessary services for women experiencing violence. The government needs to lead efforts to reach out to more women and children, to expand services and survivors’ access to services, and to develop and update standards and regulations in response to the COVID-19 emergency. More efforts also must be focused towards prevention. In addition, it is not too late to develop the gender-based violence crisis preparedness and response plan, and to adopt specific guidelines and recommendations across sectors to mitigate and handle gender-based violence incidents during the pandemic. Women’s perspectives should be taken into account while shaping emergency policy, and women’s representation in the national emergency structure should be increased.
The pandemic has brought heightened attention to gender-based violence, creating an opportunity to spark a renewed sense of urgency and galvanise wider changes to protect the security of women and children. We can use this moment to shift the national security discourse, mainly focused on military security, towards broader human security. It is also a significant moment to recognise women’s agency in national security policy, rather than see them mainly as victims in need of protection.
The lessons learnt during the pandemic will not only prepare us for next crisis, but also have the potential for progress and a paradigm shift towards greater human security.
Bayartsetseg Jigmiddash is a legal practitioner from Mongolia with extensive experience in the field of legal policy, human rights and gender equality. She served as the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs of Mongolia overseeing the legal policy, strategy and the law enforcement sector in the country. She also has extensive international development experience working with local and international NGOs. Currently she is EUI STG Policy Leader Fellow.