July 04, 2020
New Delhi: COVID-19 pandemic cannot be viewed solely as a health and economic crisis. Besides inhuman conditions people live in even as they fight the pandemic, there is an upswing in gender-based violence. According to a report by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) titled ‘Gender-based violence and COVID-19’, gender-based violence (GBV) increases during every type of emergency–be it economic crisis, conflict or disease outbreaks.
Another report titled, ‘WHO Warns of Surge of Domestic Violence in Europe’, a six-month lockdown could see an increase of GBV cases by 31 million worldwide. Dr Hans Kluge, the Regional Director for Europe for the World Health Organization (WHO), “the UNFPA has warned that there could be an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence if lockdowns were to continue for six months,” he said.
To cite an instance, the Rohingya community in the Cox Bazaar area of Myanmar live in unplanned, unsanitary refugee camps with little financial and humanitarian aid, let alone medical facilities. But this pandemic has a fiercer impact on the women in the area who not only face the above mentioned threats but are now also silent victims of a deeper structural menace of gender-based inequality and violence.
The formal justice system in Myanmar to protect women in poorer regions such as Rakhine has failed to deliver. The problem lies not only in the administrative backlogs like corruption but also with the capillarity of structural patriarchy that runs through the entire system. Reporting of gender abuse and domestic violence would not only entail shame in the community and probably the risk of losing out on the economic safety net provided by the patriarch in the family. Cultural values and norms which reinstate patriarchal attitude within the communities also stigmatise women who are divorcees. Thus, formal authorities are likely to treat issues of domestic abuse as “marital discord” rather than actual acts of criminal violence. This has created a norm of reluctance in reporting cases of GBV. Only nine cases of domestic violence and two cases of sexual assault were recorded through a questionnaire given to 1,252 households.
While formal mechanisms of justice were always out of reach for women who were impacted by GBV, the informal means of justice through communitarian and self-help groups has been reduced significantly due to COVID-19-induced lockdown. Thus, NGOs and humanitarian workers can do little. Additionally, safe spaces and other “non-essential” services have been forced to cease operations, amputating any recourse mechanisms for GBV victims.
Further, poverty and lack of financial independence amongst women in the Rohingya community has led to inadequate access to internet and mobiles, especially during the time of a pandemic. This has impacted women’s access to information on crucial issues like safety shelters, self-help groups, justice missions and basic knowledge regarding maternal healthcare and sanitation.
Many NGO’s and self-help groups like Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation and UNICEF Safe Spaces in Cox Bazaar have started a policy of “door-to-door” information dispensation and gender-based sensitization. However, this is a less effective measure as in-home activities do not solve the vulnerability of women who continue to struggle within the four walls and share the same restricted space with their oppressor/s.
This issue, therefore, needs to be looked at from a holistic point of view to guarantee women access to increased informal means of justice coupled with self-confidence building measures to battle structural prejudices associated with domestic violence. However, these should also be accompanied with tangible efforts towards economic self-sufficiency by increasing skill training and jobs for women. Labour force participation in Myanmar is disparate at 51.3 percent for women against 79.9 percent for men. In order to reduce reversal of progress made in realising SDG 5 for Gender Equality and SDG 16 for a more equal and inclusive society, the government of Myanmar and UN Women need to adopt and adapt to the “new normal” imposed by the pandemic conditions. Collective sensitization of society and informal conduits of justice needs to be strengthened through a bottom-up approach to challenge deep-rooted patriarchal power structures that are bulwarks against women achieving justice and gender equality.
(Tamanna Dahiya is an intern with OneWorld Foundation India)
 “Gender-based violence and COVID-19. UNDP, United Nations, https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/womens-empowerment/gender-based violence-and-covid-19.html
 “Consolidated Summary Report Access to Justice and Informal Justice Systems: UNDP in Myanmar.” UNDP, United Nations , www.mm.undp.org/content/myanmar/en/home/library/democratic_governance/Consolidated_Summary_Report_Access_to_Justice_and_Informal_Justice_Systems.html.
 “Preventing a Silent Crisis for Rohingya Women and Girls during COVID-19 Pandemic.” UNICEF, www.unicef.org/coronavirus/preventing-silent-crisis-rohingya-women-and-girls-during-covid-19-pandemic.
 “Human Development Reports.” | Human Development Reports, hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GII.