On May 31, the Legal Empowerment Network convened an online working session at the World Justice Forum in partnership with Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), THEMIS - Gender Justice and Human Rights, and Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) Canada to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic led to a global surge in gender-based violence (GBV), institutional responses, and the strategies implemented by grassroots organizations. Click here to watch the event recording.
To kick-off the roundtable discussion, our moderator, @Sabrina_Mahtani, succinctly described the difficult position of GBV survivors in the wake of COVID-19:
“Governments struggled to adopt a gender perspective in their pandemic responses… community-based justice services and legal empowerment groups became all the more crucial to meet survivors’ needs and guide them towards safety and justice.”
The critical roles of grassroots justice groups and legal empowerment groups during the COVID-19 pandemic were further described by Linette du Toit Lubuulwa, Programme Officer with the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA Uganda):
“Community paralegals were collectors of essential information on GBV and service provision during the lockdown.”
This event not only highlighted the additional challenges posed by the pandemic, but also the important role grassroots legal empowerment organizations and community paralegals served in filling institutional gaps and providing support to women and girls experiencing GBV, especially during this moment of crisis. Watch a recording of the event here. The recently released report, The Role of Legal Empowerment Groups in Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa During the Pandemic, by FIDA Uganda, Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, and the Legal Empowerment Network further examines GBV during the pandemic, institutional responses, and the role of legal empowerment groups.
Below, we share 3 key takeaways from our working session:
- Importance of Sustainable Financing
Panelists emphasized how the pandemic negatively impacted the financial situations of women and girls as well as exacerbated the need for sustainable funding mechanisms for grassroots and community-based organizations. Jasminka Frishchikj, Executive Director of Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women (ESE), described the financial impacts of COVID-19 as:
“Apart from the increased risk and escalation of violence, women’s financial capacities have decreased as a result of the lost jobs or reduced incomes during the pandemic.”
And provided this key takeaway in closing out the roundtable discussion:
“Sustainable financial support needs to be provided to CSOs to ensure sustainable service delivery for women survivors, and to support CSO initiatives for long-term systemic changes in legislation, practices and factual position of women in society.”
Linette du Toit Lubuulwa echoed this sentiment in a closing remark calling for governments to prioritize the recognition and support, including financial, of community paralegals.
- Opportunities for Community Paralegal and Government Collaboration
In some cases, gender blind government and institutional responses exacerbated the GBV crisis as lockdowns closed courts, shelters and other essential services for women in situations of violence. In response to these challenges, community paralegals developed innovative strategies and solutions. Linette du Toit Lubuulwa described how male community paralegals engaged with local men on constructive strategies for dealing with the pressure and anxiety heightened by the pandemic. Jasminka Frishchikj added:
“[CSOs] have advocated in front of the Government and relevant ministries to undertake concrete measures for informing the general population about the nature of GBV and legal mechanisms for protection; prioritization of the proceedings in GBV cases during the crisis; and establishment of separate funds for financial support of women in need.”
Justice Sandra Luz Chicas Bautista acknowledged the financial challenges caused by the pandemic and one of the solutions implemented via the judiciary in El Salvador:
“[…] people were deprived of financial resources. Bank accounts were closed, so we coordinated with other institutions so police could pay money to victims for livelihoods.”
Linette’s closing remark reveals the important support governments can also provide to grassroots justice organizations:
“Community-based paralegals lack legitimization, recognition and state support, which limits their impact, capacity and reach at the community level. There is a need for States to recognize and legitimize the work of community-based paralegals in a way that will not limit their autonomy and flexibility.”
- Technological Challenges and Innovative Responses
The technological challenges exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic were two-fold; governments and paralegals struggled transitioning from a primarily oral, paper-based space to an online environment which was further complicated by some communities’ lack of access to smartphones or online connectivity. Abdullah Titir described this situation:
“Limited internet and mobile connectivity, and also, in many cases, limited digital literacy and knowledge of online platforms and communications, have hampered [government and CSOs] ability to provide emergency assistance, especially to clients from remote and low-income communities.”
This is especially precarious considering the implications for women and girls experiencing GBV, as Titir elaborated:
“… the lack of access to the internet, and smartphones and other devices needed to connect online, particularly for women in low-income and remote communities, and the lack of privacy within their homes, have prevented many women from reporting incidents of gender-based violence.”
In response to these challenges, community paralegals across communities developed innovative solutions. Linette du Toit Lubuulwa described some of the strategies used by FIDA Uganda:
“We also encouraged them to make announcements about the availability of FIDA’s services during the lockdown and our toll-free lines within their communities using megaphones. Many took the initiative to do door-to-door campaigns, where they would visit homes and share contact details with women who may need it.”
The call from panelists for more sustainable funding is not only needed to address the surge in GBV but also address these technological challenges and gaps created from gender blind government and institutional response. Hazel Lavitoria of SALIGAN encouraged institutions to prioritize the:
“practical and strategic needs of women and girls in pandemic response (in general, disaster response) as primary and not secondary to relief (hunger) and livelihood (poverty).”
In addition, the GBV crisis continues beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, and community paralegals and grassroots justice organizations continue to be essential in addressing these challenges. Governments and other key stakeholders must shift from properly responding to GBV only in times of “emergency,” but rather integrating a robust response to these challenges on an ongoing basis. GBV must be a priority not just in moments of crisis, but every day.