U.N. director warns of a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women during lockdowns

The executive director of U.N. Women told CNBC that the Covid-19 crisis has significantly “set women back” through challenges including job losses and creating a worrying “shadow pandemic” of violence. 

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who heads up the unit dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women as well as being under-secretary-general of the United Nations, said that every pandemic has a gender dimension and many women are facing a much harder time because of the impact of the global response to the virus.

“One of the worrying factors … is the shadow pandemic of the violence against women. Because in order to protect people from infection, people have had to shelter in and be locked in with their abusers. This has given us a bigger problem of how we intervene to save women in an abusive situation,” she said.

U.N. Women was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010. According to figures from the organization, in the 12 months before the crisis, 243 million women and girls aged between 15 and 49 had experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner, with figures likely to significantly increase during the worldwide lockdown response.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said U.N. Women and the World Health Organization are leading the call to end gender-based violence. Asked how President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the WHO impacted the work she is doing, she replied that it was “quite unfortunate.”

“We need international institutions more than ever before. We need global solidarity. In the context of the virus, a virus anywhere is a virus everywhere … It means that the WHO will have lesser resources to support the countries that are struggling … All of that means that the fight against the virus is even more complex and more difficult,” she said.

She said job losses were also a major challenge that women have faced during the pandemic, with U.N. figures showing nearly 60% of women work in the informal economy worldwide which it, it said, were at greater risk of falling into poverty.

“So women do not have savings, they do not have insurance. Those who work in the informal sector tend not to have enforceable contracts. So it has set women back in a big way,” she told CNBC.

Mlambo-Ngcuka, who served as the first female deputy president of South Africa from 2005 to 2008, spoke of similarities between the Covid-19 crisis and what her country experienced in 1994, following the end of apartheid and the election of President Nelson Mandela who oversaw the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) at the time.

“He used to talk about the RDP to build houses, to have electricity, but (that) we also need the RDP of the soul, to heal people, to make people find a way to forget about the past, to forgive each other, to believe in each other,” she said.

“With Covid we have lost so many people, I think the grief that is out there is just unimaginable. We are going to need that healing process. All of us will have to play a role in one way or the other to help people and then we have to reconstruct our livelihood. We have to reconstruct our economies. It’s a big job,” she added.

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