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Desiree Buitenbos

Gender-based violence: the silent and lethal ‘shadow pandemic’

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Reading Time: 3 minutes

A silent and lethal ‘shadow pandemic’ is currently unfolding across the globe as incidences of gender-based violence are increasing due to the lockdown conditions imposed by COVID-19.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the stats regarding gender-based violence were already grim –  137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. In addition, almost 1 in 3 women globally have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetime.  

Now, the reality of school closures, economic tensions and life under lockdown have further increased incidences of gender-based violence. In fact, the UNFPA estimates that for every three months of lockdown, 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are to be expected.  

What is gender-based violence?

Violence against women and girls occurs in all countries and all economic and social groups. It jeopardizes health, dignity and security.  

Many survivors never come forward against their abusers due to fear and stigma, meaning that cases of gender-based violence are often cloaked by silence.  

Gender-based violence comprises not only rape and attempted rape, but also sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, child marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, trafficking and female genital mutilation. 

How is COVID-19 increasing cases of gender-based violence?

Research suggests intimate partner violence often escalates during crises: A Red Cross report found both domestic and sexual violence increase after disasters. In addition, abuse rates have been rising in parts of Canada with federal consultations showing 20 to 30 per cent increase in domestic violence rates in certain regions.  

Stay-at-home orders and movement restrictions along with other stressors related to the pandemic such as household and economic tensions can play a role in promoting violence and harm towards women and girls, especially if they are already living in an abusive home.  


Cases of gender-based violence are increasing on a global scale largely due to the above factors and because the safe spaces and services that help prevent and protect women and girls are either not available in the same capacity or they are simply not functioning due to the pandemic.  

Furthermore, resources to provide support, counselling and post-rape care are also strained. 

what are the consequences in developing countries?

With more cases of gender-based violence arising in developing countries, including sexual violence and child marriage, the consequences for women and girls’ health can be dire.  

Girls and women in developing countries already face significant barriers to exercising their rights to healthcare, particularly sexual and reproductive health. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these barriers are becoming more pronounced and are reducing access to vital health services that can help prevent maternal and newborn illness, and even death.  

Before COVID-19, nearly 300,000 women and girls died every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, 94% of them in developing countries – now, this statistic is set to grow.  

Lockdowns around the world are set to result in 15.4 million unintended pregnancies and current estimates are forecasting an additional 28,000 maternal deaths as a result of a decrease in access to healthcare due to pandemic. 

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, research showed a 75% increase in maternal mortality due to that crisis alone. 

woman holding sign: End violence against women and girls

A plan to stop the setback for girls

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented and wide-reaching hardship across the world. Girls living in the least developed countries in the world are in crisis, because of COVID-19’s direct consequences and further negative impacts. 

Plan International is working to stop the setback COVID-19 is causing for vulnerable people worldwide, and directly helping 20 million people – especially girls and young women – across more than 50 countries.  

This past year, Plan International’s work reached more than 73 million people, thanks to our donors. But six months of COVID-19’s effects can undo up to 20 years of development work. With the current global crisis, these communities need our help more than ever before. 

Learn more about stopping the setback

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