Under COVID-19 lockdowns, the rise in gender-based violence, particularly against mothers and children, has been documented across the world, so much so that many are calling the scourge of violence “the second pandemic.”
Abuom’s reflections come during the “16 Days against Gender-Based Violence” international initiative that is currently being observed from 25 November through 10 December.
Can you reflect on the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual and gender-based violence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic? How is this risk magnified for those living amid conflict situations?
Dr Abuom: The United Nations Development Programme estimates that over 243 million women and girls ages 15-49 have been subjected to sexual or physical violence in the previous 12 months perpetrated by an intimate partner. The number is likely to increase as security, health, and money worries heighten tensions and strains that are accentuated by cramped and confined living conditions during and after the COVID-19 period. As if that precarious existence is not enough, women and girls living in nations and communities in war and conflict situations are even more vulnerable to being denied the life essentials such as clean water, food and human dignity.
What are the risks for children and young people during school closures?
Dr Abuom: With more online activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with schools closed, children are at an increased risk of sexual exploitation both online and at home. A World Health Organization report on global child abuse noted that schools were closed to 1.5 billion children worldwide because of the pandemic, giving children more time online and exposing children to an increased risk of online sexual exploitation. Many children are also stuck with their abusers, without the safe space that schools normally offer.
Cyberbullying is also on the rise. According to L1ght, an organization that monitors online harassment and hate speech, there has been a 70% increase in cyberbullying in just a matter of months. L1ght also found a 40% increase in toxicity on online gaming platforms, a 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter directed toward China and the Chinese, and a 200% increase in traffic to hate sites.
How can we, as a global ecumenical family, turn these alarming trends around?
Dr Abuom: Religious communities are playing important roles in all dimensions and social sectors through creative adaptations of practice, messaging that separates facts and rumour, support to communities, outreach to outliers and doubters, and the tamping down of prejudices. Many advocate powerfully for sharp attention to vulnerable and suffering children and youth.
It is a good moment in time again when religious actors are being invited to the table to offer help in fighting the pandemic. This is due to the fact that churches have communication networks and deep knowledge of local communities. On a global level, we have also seen religious bodies being invited to UN discussions on how to better fight the pandemic.
How do you see addressing gender-based violence and violence against children as an integral part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace?
Dr Abuom: As we continue the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace—in the form of journeying with churches and communities to listen to their stories and express our solidarity—we find that addressing inequality and inequity is at the heart of our pilgrimage. If we make preventing gender-based violence a priority, we will find those stories also intersect with narratives of racial injustice and solidarity with indigenous peoples.
How can pastors and those who work with youth find more resources?
Dr Abuom: It is important that pastors and youth leaders are equipped with resources such as bible studies as they help to guide their congregations and youth groups. Under COVID-19 lockdowns, there are also more home churches, and all can be supported. The WCC has prepared many excellent resources and will be developing biblical studies on gender-based violence in the coming months.
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