Exacerbating the Other Epidemic: How COVID-19 is Increasing Violence against Displaced Women and Girls

Gender-based violence (GBV) has long been a threat to women and girls around the world. One in three women worldwide experiences physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. Violence against women leads to as many deaths among women of reproductive age as cancer. While anyone is at risk of violence committed against them because of their gender or perceived gender, women and girls (including trans women and girls) experience disproportionate gender-based violence, which results in more negative health outcomes worldwide than traffic accidents and malaria combined. Gender-based violence is an epidemic. This level of violence is also a key element of gender inequality.

Violence against women and girls is even more prevalent among women and girls who have been forcibly displaced. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk that displaced women and girls have of experiencing various types of GBV, including intimate partner violence, conflict-related sexual violence, human trafficking, and forced and early marriage—four manifestations of GBV that are already more common in displacement. And in fact, initial evidence suggests that the pandemic is indeed worsening existing gender-based violence, increasing instances of gender-based violence, and making gender-based violence harder to address.

These concerning trends demand that donors, governments, and humanitarian organizations dedicate funds and commit to urgent action to better protect displaced women and girls from violence during this global health crisis. However, taking those steps first requires thoughtful gender analysis—a tool providing “essential information about gender roles and responsibilities, capacities and vulnerabilities”—to understand what is driving these increased risks of GBV and how they are taking shape differently because of the pandemic. Shining a light on the changing nature of the problem is the first step in determining how to best counteract the factors which lead to GBV and therefore mitigate its increase.

Much has been done to try to address GBV among global actors. But governments, donors, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and communities must take further and more creative actions to combat GBV among displaced populations, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Background: Responses to the Pre-existing Epidemic of GBV

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes gender-based violence as:

any harmful act that is perpetrated against one person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

When persecution, war, or climate change-related disasters force women to leave home, the risk of gender-based violence increases. Displacement disrupts the social support systems of women and girls and leaves them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and with limited options for legal recourse. The threats to displaced women and girls take many forms, including intimate partner violence (IPV), conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), human trafficking, and forced and early marriage.

International aid agencies, community-based organizations, and even some host country governments have taken steps to better prevent and respond to GBV. UN bodies and a number of governments have also declared their intention to address GBV in emergencies and have taken some positive measures. For example, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2467 in April 2019 calling for an end to sexual violence in conflict. Also in 2019, participants in the Group of Seven (G7) Gender Equality Ministers’ Meeting agreed that their number one priority in the fight for gender equality was combatting sexual and gender-based violence. This action followed a 2018 G7 endorsement of the Whistler Declaration on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls in Humanitarian Action. Adopted in Whistler, Canada, the declaration committed G7 Development Ministers to principles of inclusivity as they created innovative approaches to humanitarian action and development assistance.

These high-level commitments indicate a global recognition that gender inequality and violence against women are enormous obstacles to building peaceful and productive societies. They reinforce the importance of initiatives that give humanitarian workers some tools and resources they need to better prevent and respond to GBV. For example, the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies is a multi-stakeholder initiative created to hold the humanitarian system accountable in its response to GBV in emergencies. In addition, the British-funded program What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls and the U.S. State Department’s Safe From the Start programming have made important contributions

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. Between 2016 and 2018, funding directed specifically toward GBV prevention and response activities globally accounted for just 0.12 percent of all international humanitarian funding. This is only one-third of what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) requested as the minimum needed to address egregious violence against women and girls in humanitarian emergencies.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) or domestic violence is most common. It has increased at such a rate since the outbreak of COVID-19 that as early as April 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres referred to the dramatic rise as “a horrifying surge.” Noting that violence is not confined to the battlefield, he warned that “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.” He pleaded for “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

Several, often overlapping, vulnerabilities are fueling this “surge” in IPV against displaced women and girls. The stress, economic strain, and shift in familial roles and responsibilities that forced displacement typically brings about have all intensified during the pandemic. A recent CARE report highlights: “when combined with lockdowns and other movement restrictions, homes within the context of COVID-19 can become potential pressure cookers of GBV, as drivers of violence increase, while survivors and those at risk are more restricted than ever in terms of their ability to seek safety or other necessary forms of support.”

Low Levels of Reporting

Even as the number of incidents of IPV rises, the full scale of the problem is difficult to ascertain. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that less than 40 percent of women who suffered from domestic violence sought help. Displaced women often feel even less comfortable reporting these issues. Prior to the pandemic, screening data suggested that one in four Rohingya women and girls in Cox’s Bazar—a district in Bangladesh with settlements that host the world’s largest population of refugees—experienced GBV. However, most did not seek help. Of those who did, more than 80 percent were seeking assistance because they experienced IPV. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has locked down the camps, reporting has dropped by 50 percent, but it is unlikely that this reflects any decrease in IPV. Rather, lockdowns have almost certainly made it far more difficult for survivors to report abuse. In fact, GBV service providers are confident that IPV is actually increasing despite reporting declines.

An NGO staff member who provides psychosocial counseling to survivors of IPV in Cox’s Bazar explained to Refugees International:

we know that the lockdown is increasing violence within homes—it is inevitable. The problem is we cannot show this with numbers because the reporting has gone down and we can no longer conduct home visits. Colleagues of mine doing similar work around the world have said the same thing. I feel so helpless knowing that this is going on and not being able to get to the women and girls who are suffering.

Lockdowns, quarantines, and other movement restrictions have also disrupted access to police, legal, and social service, as well as access to counseling, safe shelters, medical treatment, and sexual and reproductive health services. Moreover, Refugees International’s interviews with humanitarian workers in several countries reveal that refugees and asylum seekers fear that if they report IPV to the authorities, immigration authorities will detain them, imprison them, or deport them based on their legal status or lack thereof. 

According to one NGO staff member interviewed by Refugees International providing GBV support services to refugees in Lebanon, “the women I speak to have always been afraid of accessing public health services to help them when they are injured in an incident of domestic abuse. Now [in the current COVID-19 context], there is even more distrust of the government while at the same time I can assure you there is a rise of domestic abuse in these refugee communities.”

COVID-19 related impediments to reporting IPV only exacerbate long-standing obstacles. From Malaysia to Lebanon to the United States to Canada, government authorities have detained or deported forcibly displaced women and girls who report IPV because they have irregular status. Moreover, as of 2018, one in four countries had no laws specifically criminalizing domestic violence.

Innovative Methods to Access Survivors

Despite these challenges, there are important measures humanitarian workers and policymakers can take to ensure displaced women and girls are safer and have access to critical assistance.

First, to address the challenge of lockdowns and movement restrictions humanitarian organizations and community-based organizations must invest in innovative approaches to service provision for survivors of IPV. Phone hotlines, text messaging, and videoconferencing can be useful tools to engage in remote IPV service provision and counseling. At the same time, many displaced women and girls may confront practical and security obstacles to using these technologies. Still others—like the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar—may face government restrictions on access to phone or internet. Thus, humanitarian service providers must refer to best practices such as creating temporary safe spaces and ad hoc private spaces as well as identifying community focal points to create opportunities to engage with victims.

One example of innovation can be seen in several camps housing Syrian refugees in Jordan, where COVID-19-related precautions prohibit caseworkers from speaking face-to-face with survivors. Organizations have turned women-only safe spaces into private phone booths where women and girls can confidentially call and speak to GBV counselors at any time. Another example of a creative solution came from a survey of refugee women in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The women suggested humanitarian organizations conduct in person GBV awareness-raising sessions in small, socially distanced groups. 

Conflict-related Sexual Violence 

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) refers to sexual violence directly or indirectly linked to an armed conflict. Perpetrators of CRSV are state and non-state combatants who often commit these crimes to deliberately weaken the social structures of a society that they perceive as the enemy. CRSV remains a problem even during the pandemic as conflicts have continued—and in some cases intensified—despite global leaders’ calls for ceasefires.

For example, despite announcing a two-week ceasefire in the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia reportedly launched 25 airstrikes within a six-hour period in early April 2020. Similarly, internal conflict has continued and in some cases grown in Colombia, Burundi, Mozambique, and Myanmar. From March 23 to May 15, 2020, conflict in these countries and fifteen others, newly displaced more than half a million people, even as COVID-19 continued to rapidly spread worldwide. Terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab have continued their pace of attacks, and some have even indicated that they will take advantage of the destabilization caused by the pandemic to further their goals.   

This violence creates unique dangers to women and girls, as it increases the risks of CRSV. This is especially true for displaced women and girls who lack the support structures or safety networks that might have helped protect them prior to displacement. Armed groups and individuals have continued to perpetrate egregious crimes of CRSV in countries with ongoing conflict throughout the duration of the pandemic. And the current COVID-19 public health crisis has further obscured CRSV, which is generally underreported. Peacekeepers are particularly concerned about situations in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Mali. The safety of Rohingya women and girls in Myanmar is also of utmost concern. In June 2020, the Tatmadaw—the armed forces of the Myanmar government—announced upcoming clearance operations of the ethnic Rakhine people in certain areas. Brutal sexual violence is one of its hallmark military tactics.

Monitoring CRSV

UN Security Council Resolution 1960 adopted in 2010 mandated that UN bodies monitor, analyze, and report on CRSV. Knowing the extent of CRSV is necessary to hold governments and non-state actors accountable. However, COVID-19 related movement restrictions are disrupting the ability of UN entities to gather information, identify violations, and improve compliance with international obligations. Within countries themselves, holding perpetrators of CRSV accountable is essential to provide redress for victims and strengthen the rule of law, which is often weak in fragile and conflict-affected states.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is limiting already constrained capacities of law enforcement and judicial authorities to carry out these responsibilities and adequately respond to CRSV. In the DRC, for example, due to the pandemic, authorities had to suspend an investigation into mass rape in South Kivu. They also had to postpone trials of individuals charged with crimes against humanity for sexual violence, including the trials of former armed group commanders Sheka in Goma, and Cobra Matata in Kinshasa. Simultaneously, delays in legal proceedings may embolden perpetrators of CRSV.

Governments, UN bodies, and humanitarian organizations must include measures to mitigate and respond to CRSV in national COVID-19 response plans. For example, in South Sudan—which has had a fragile peace deal in place since 2018—violence against civilians continues with impunity. At the end of June 2020, David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), warned that “escalating violence” and resulting human rights violations have “hit the most desperate even harder,” even as the country prepares for the impending peak of the COVID-19 outbreak. Already before these recent developments, human rights experts considered South Sudan “one of the world’s worst places to be female.” Yet, the public health crisis has forced authorities to suspend UN- and government-led trainings on the prohibition of CRSV. It is critically important that states plagued by conflict and displacement, such as South Sudan, integrate CRSV experts into the military, humanitarian, and political efforts to respond to COVID-19. This is a first step, but is not enough.

Investing in Local Capacity

International organizations that aim to prevent and respond to CRSV must also rely more heavily on local networks and groups—especially female-led organizations—to help receive reports, collect evidence, and provide basic services for survivors, including psychological first aid (PFA), healthcare, and psychosocial assistance.

These localization efforts are always best practice, but have become increasingly important because the pandemic is preventing international organizations from deploying staff to many countries, particularly conflict-affected locations. Additionally, capitalizing on the trust that communities place in local groups and individuals is crucial to effectively addressing CRSV. Donors and international organizations must adequately fund and train these local networks and groups to ensure that they have the means to continue the prevention, mitigation, and response work that is critical for survivors of CRSV.   

Human Trafficking

Human traffickers overwhelmingly target women and girls—indeed, more than 70 percent of all victims of human trafficking are female. Moreover, most detected cases are sex trafficking cases. Risks of human trafficking increase, especially for women and girls forced to flee their homes, when safe, legal, and affordable options to move become more limited.

Women and girls fleeing persecution, failing states, or climate-related disasters, often have fewer financial means and very few options to find safety, leaving them highly vulnerable to trafficking. Now, official border closures and movement restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus are exacerbating those vulnerabilities. The pandemic also creates additional challenges for authorities to identify and prosecute traffickers given limited official capacity and the interruption of some services. These closures, together with a suspension of law enforcement and legal services in some places, are driving a crime already considered “invisible” even farther underground. 

The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the U.S. State Department have all expressed significant concern that traffickers are taking advantage of the situation the pandemic has created by “finding ways to innovate and even capitalize on the chaos.” The experience of a woman asylum seeker living on the Greek island of Lesvos reveals the acute vulnerability that displaced women and girls, in particular, face. She recently told Refugees International:

I paid a smuggler to get me from Turkey to Greece. I had to try several times and I used up all of my money. I wasn’t trafficked, but I know plenty of other girls who were…You might think that because of the lockdowns and the low numbers being reported, that no refugees are coming here. They are still coming. They are just the most desperate ones and will do anything. They are being exploited—especially the single women—we just don’t know about them. I think the pandemic will make trafficking of refugees much more common.

Increase of Smuggling

For refugee and asylum seeking women and girls, smuggling—paying someone to assist in irregular movement across borders—is often the only way they can move from one location to another to find safety. However, the unequal power relationship between smugglers and clients renders smuggled migrants exceptionally vulnerable to being trafficked or exploited in other ways at numerous points of their journey.

Smuggling continues and in some cases has increased despite border closures resulting from the pandemic. This is the case, for example, along the various sea routes that refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants take to reach Europe. Since the pandemic began, smuggling by way of the Western Mediterranean route has remained steady; use of the Eastern Mediterranean route has dropped dramatically; and use of the Central Mediterranean route has increased, largely due to the ongoing conflict in Libya. Refugees’ demand for mobility and entry into safe countries does not simply decrease because borders are closed. Instead, border closures push refugees to resort to more dangerous, inhumane, and expensive smuggling trips that can easily turn into situations of trafficking.

The situation in Libya—both a transit country and a country of origin—is particularly worrisome. The majority of asylum seekers and other migrants who flee Libya travel to Italy. Therefore, at the end of 2019, Libya and Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreeing to stop irregular migration through a variety of measures including EU provision of technical and financial support to the Libyan coastguard. However, in mid-March 2020, Libya suspended all air and maritime travel due to the pandemic. This has pushed more individuals seeking refuge to resort to taking sea routes, even as the pandemic also grounded most sea rescue operations. Despite facing both greater obstacles and greater danger, five times as many people arrived in Italy irregularly from Libya and Tunisia in the first four months of 2020 than did during the same period in 2019. 

Meanwhile, the Libyan government is holding thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants in appalling conditions in detention centers and intercepting at sea, those who try to escape. At the same time, smugglers and human traffickers are holding an unknown number of people in clandestine buildings—the numbers of which have recently increased since the pandemic has led the Libyan authorities to close many official detention centers. Refugees International and other NGOs, human rights organizations, and UN agencies have widely documented how in both situations, captors extort and abuse refugees and migrants who are vulnerable to being trafficked. While women and girls are a small percentage of the migrants and refugees in these holding facilities, they are at grave risk of sexual abuse including rape and sex trafficking. The several overlapping crises in Libya—the health crisis of the pandemic, the governance crisis of its political dysfunction, and the humanitarian suffering resulting from its ongoing civil war—will heighten the risks to women refugees and migrants.

Migration routes connecting Central America to North America and the Horn of Africa to South Africa have also remained active during the pandemic. Organizations that focus on human trafficking as well as law enforcement agencies note that the economic repercussions of the pandemic worldwide will increase the number of people at risk of being deceived, exploited, and trafficked. Thus a significant increase in human trafficking will likely be a mid-term consequence of the pandemic.

Border Closures and Restrictions

As the virus continues to spread—and possibly resurface—in different parts of the world, governments will continue to maintain or impose border restrictions. Many countries, including several in Europe, have not made exceptions for individuals seeking international protection and have in fact suspended asylum procedures entirely. The United States has used the COVID-19 health crisis as a rationale to exclude and expel asylum seekers, including women and girls fleeing violence. This inevitably causes women and girls on the move to utilize riskier routes, travel in worse conditions, pay more for smuggling services, and ultimately expose them to increased abuse, exploitation and trafficking. 

Even before the pandemic, traffickers in Latin America and the Caribbean capitalized on the suffering of Venezuelan women and girls and their dwindling options to enter neighboring countries. Along unofficial border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia, armed militias demand sexual services for safe passage. In other cases, traffickers appeal to Venezuelan women and girls with promises of dignified employment upon their arrival to Caribbean islands, only to trap them in situations of forced servitude and sexual exploitation. These trends are likely to increase as legal channels to access safe countries disappear as a result of to COVID-19 precautions. Already the Colombian government has reported a 20 percent increase in trafficking cases during the first four months of 2020 as compared to the entirety of 2019.

A lawyer working on behalf of Venezuelan trafficking victims in Colombia explained to Refugees International that, “women are desperate and Venezuela’s crumbling health care system is not even close to equipped to handle the medical crisis of the coronavirus, let alone the financial fallout of this pandemic. If a woman does not have money what can she do to get out? This is how so many women end up trafficked.”   

In South and Southeast Asia, meanwhile, smugglers and traffickers have preyed on Rohingya refugees for years, developing a highly organized criminal syndicate to move refugees throughout Southeast Asia. Ongoing abuses in Myanmar and dire conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh have driven more people to try to escape by sea in recent months—including increasing numbers of women and girls. Hundreds of Rohingya have been left stranded on boats for weeks as Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh have refused to allow them to come ashore. The stated reason for prohibiting their disembarkation is concern about the spread of COVID-19, putting refugees, especially women and girls, at further risk of exploitation.

Safe and Legal Pathways

To reduce the risk of displaced women and girls being trafficked, transit and receiving countries should increase avenues for regular migration. They can safely do so even in the context of the pandemic by adapting migration management operations to screen people upon arrival and impose reasonable measures, relating to testing and quarantine informed by best public health best practices. It is especially important that governments ensure access to the asylum process remains open, even if that means simplifying the registration process by reducing the amount of personal data authorities collect from asylum seekers, conducting remote interviews, and/or accepting online asylum applications. In cases where there are general border closures, governments should create exemptions for asylum seekers to access territory. As early as March 16, 2020, the European Commission called for temporary travel restrictions, but made clear that asylum seekers should be exempt from these restrictions. Ensuring that avenues to asylum remain open will reduce the risk of trafficking. But governments should also expand methods people fleeing have to access safer countries including through the issuance of humanitarian visas and work permits. As the public health threat recedes and countries begin to re-open, governments must prioritize creating more legal pathways to regular migration.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement officials must also address new and evolving crime patterns such as a greater use of online recruitment. Traffickers are preying on people’s vulnerabilities, including people’s need to seek protection in other countries despite closed borders. As the short-term economic devastation matures into longer-term economic instability in countries around the world, traffickers will be even more willing to take risks and displaced women and girls will be even more likely to fall victim to trafficking schemes. Law enforcement must be ready to adapt their responses to prevent human traffickers from acting with impunity during and after the pandemic. For example, authorities should consider using technology to collect evidence, submit documents, and facilitate legal proceedings against traffickers.

Forced and Early Marriage

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it are heightening the risks of forced and early marriage for displaced girls.

There are several reasons why girls are forced into marriage. The breakdown of social norms and traditions can heighten families’ and communities’ desire to control girls’ sexuality and “protect their honor” through marriage. Relatedly, marriage is sometimes seen as a way to protect girls and their families from the social stigma that can result from surviving rape or sexual assault—threats that are also more common in conflict zones and displaced communities. There are also economic motivators.

By compounding humanitarian needs, forcing schools to close, and shuttering economies, the pandemic is exacerbating factors that typically lead to forced and early marriage. And in the context of the pandemic, disruptions in child protection services and lack of information may leave girls trapped in exploitative situations.

Heightened Risks  

Comprehensive data as to the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing instances of forced and early marriage for displaced women and girls is not yet available. However, estimates indicate that 4 million girls worldwide are at risk of child marriage in the next two years as a direct result of the pandemic. Policymakers should take note of three concerning trends that have historically been precursors to rises in forced and early marriage: conflict, lack of access to education, and increased financial strain.

First, early marriage is more prevalent in areas with high levels of displacement, including conflict zones. Girls in conflict-affected communities are especially at risk of sexual exploitation and are sometimes forced to marry members of armed groups. For example, this is relatively common in Yemen. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned in that the practice will likely increase as a result of the pandemic.

Second, when schools close—as they have during the pandemic—forced and early marriage usually increases. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, widespread school closures contributed to spikes in sexual abuse of girls and teenage pregnancies. Following these teen pregnancies, there was a sharp increase in early marriages.   

Finally, the economic consequences of the pandemic have hit displaced families especially hard. In several countries, refugees are 60 percent more likely than members of host country populations to work in sectors highly impacted by the pandemic—usually those in the informal economy. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, 1.6 billion people worldwide worked in informal jobs. The vast majority of these people—including refugees and asylum seekers—have lost or are in danger of losing their livelihoods as a direct result of COVID-19.

These financial stressors, together with a potential reduction in access to humanitarian aid, have left displaced families and girls in dire circumstances. Forced and early marriage can often be a financial recourse to inject much-needed cash into a struggling household. Families can also view forced and early marriage as a protective measure for daughters when the families are under severe economic strain. For instance, instead of starving within a family, parents might marry their daughter so that she can have access to basic necessities such as sufficient food in a new household. Humanitarian organizations and governments must therefore find ways to soften the financial shocks from COVID-19 on displaced populations by providing immediate cash assistance, including displaced people in national social service provision, and investing in longer-term livelihood activities.

Other Negative Consequences

Early marriage, in particular, creates health risks. For example, early pregnancy is pervasive in child marriage and presents a higher risk of complications and maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. Indeed, the leading cause of death for 15 to 19-year-old girls globally is complications during pregnancy and childbirth. As the risks of early marriage increase, governments and humanitarian organizations must support maternal health care and access to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS). These are both essential forms of healthcare that could face funding cuts as governments and donors shift resources to respond to the pandemic. However, the health and safety of young mothers is contingent on their consistent, uninterrupted access to female-specific health services throughout the course of the pandemic and beyond.


Humanitarian responders are trying to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate the risks displaced women and girls have of experiencing GBV. There is much that is still unknown about the extent to which these risks are increasing. What humanitarian practitioners do know, however, is that local communities are key to preventing and responding to all forms of GBV—including IPV, CRSV, human trafficking, and forced and early marriage—especially during the pandemic.

For example, UNHCR has indicated it recognizes that relying on local networks is crucial for providing community-based protection and psychosocial support to survivors of GBV. And some large donors such as the Open Society Foundation (OSF) have provided financial support to refugee-led organizations to respond to COVID-19 more generally. Several donor governments including Canada, Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands have also committed to directly funding refugee-led organizations by signing a Refugee Participation Pledge in 2018. But all donors and organizations responding to GBV in humanitarian settings must make localization a top priority. To do so they must invest time and resources in training these local groups, provide funding directly to them, and reduce compliance standards. 


Gender-based violence is a serious risk for women and girls worldwide—especially those forcibly displaced from their homes. Now, the measures taken to mitigate the global COVID-19 outbreak are exacerbating both the risks to displaced people and the likelihood of GBV. As policymakers develop their COVID-19 responses, they must recognize how these challenges impact one another. Governments and humanitarian workers alike need to fulfill their existing commitments to conducting gender analyses when setting policy and developing programs, a standard to which they have already committed. In doing so, they will better understand how the consequences of the pandemic and displacement have led to the dramatic rise of IPV, the continuation of CRSV, the risk of human trafficking, and the potential increase in forced and early marriage.

This is a difficult time, challenging governments’ abilities to adequately protect their citizens and displaced people in their territories. It is testing whether existing humanitarian systems can adapt to protect and assist the people who need it most. Displaced women and girls are one of the groups most at risk of violence and exploitation during this pandemic. But there are ways to mitigate the risks they face. Governments and humanitarians must prioritize the protection of displaced women and girls from GBV by increasing funding to programs that work, innovating to account for the pandemic, enacting policies that enhance safety, and investing in long-term solutions. 


International organizations, NGOs, and donors working with forcibly displaced populations should:

  • Prepare and detail resources needed to respond to an increase in intimate partner violence (IPV), conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), human trafficking, and forced and early marriage among displaced women and girls.

    • Ensure uninterrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHS), contraceptives, maternal healthcare and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response services.
    • In case services are disrupted, develop and strengthen innovative ways to access women and girls and provide them with assistance.
  • Increase the percentage of funding for GBV-related programming in the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) and fully fund the UN appeals.

    • Ensure close monitoring and accountability of these funds through regular reporting.
    • Do not divert funding already allocated for specific and ongoing health needs of women and girls.
  • Prioritize localization by funding locally based organizations, especially female-led organizations.

    • Support organizations that specialize in community-based programming for displaced women and girls, especially in areas where women and girls do not have access to services provided by international organizations and UN agencies.
    • Invest time and resources in training these local organizations, provide funding directly to them, and reduce some compliance standards such as detail and frequency of donor reporting.
  • Train more women as community-workers and providers of psychological first aid (PFA), enabling them to provide basic GBV-related services where international organizations may not have access given COVID-related movement restrictions.

    • Set aside funding to compensate these community-based workers.

Governments hosting refugees, IDP populations, asylum seekers, or other migrants, should:

  • Conduct gender analyses when making decisions about funding, service provision, and public health orders impacting forcibly displaced people, especially women and girls.

    • Take precautions to ensure that policy decisions related to COVID-19 prevention and response do not disproportionately increase risks of GBV.
  • Maintain financial support for maternal health care facilities.

    • Ensure that COVID-19 related interventions do not divert resources from consistent health care needs for women and girls including sexual and reproductive health services and maternal health care.
    • Prioritize consistent, uninterrupted access to female-specific health services including sexual and reproductive health services and maternal healthcare.
  • Expand safe and legal pathways for people fleeing conflict, persecution, and disasters, to enter transit and host countries. 

    • Develop screening mechanisms to ensure that the health status of new arrivals do not put host country populations at risk of contracting COVID-19, but do so in a humane and organized way as laid out in UNHCR guidance documents.
    • Ensure that access to asylum procedures always remain open. 
  • Adapt law enforcement tactics to prevent human traffickers from acting with impunity during and after the pandemic.

    • Consider using technology to collect evidence, submit documents, and facilitate legal proceedings against traffickers.
  • Ensure law enforcement officials do not deport or otherwise penalize individuals who seek service provision or protection related to GBV, notwithstanding their legal status.
  • Provide displaced people with immediate cash assistance if possible and include displaced people in national social service provision to reduce the risks of forced and early marriage and other negative coping mechanisms.

    • Invest in longer-term livelihood activities for displaced families to financially recover.

 Cover Photo: A gender-based violence protest in Cape Town, South Africa. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images via Getty Images).