Violence against women: a shadow pandemic aggravated by COVID-19

María Noel Vaeza, UN Women regional director for the Americas and the Caribbean


A few days ago, I shared with the women ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean, civil society and international organizations my constant concern for almost a year. Behind the visible pandemic, there is a hidden pandemic: gender-based violence against women.  

This shadow pandemic, we already know, was already present long before the appearance of SARS Cov-2 in our lives. But it has been tremendously exacerbated by the worldwide social, economic and health impact of the coronavirus and the measures taken to deal with it.  

Since the onset of the health emergency we have seen an increase in various forms of violence against women, with calls to gender-based violence hotlines increasing and, in some cases, more people requesting access to shelters or other support services.   

The most recent information from 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean reports that femicides/feminicides exceeded 3,800 in 2019. Already in 2020, partial reports collected so far in several countries reveal that we are on track to far exceed that absolutely unacceptable balance.   

At the same time, social isolation measures increased other risk factors for violence against women, such as food or resource shortages, economic instability or uncertainty, job losses and increased tensions in households.   

Unemployment, in fact, took a particular toll on women, who constitute the largest labor force in the commerce and service sectors, often in the informal economy, and the first sectors to close their doors due to the confinement measures.   

All this creates a picture of violence and inequality that threatens gender equality, and in fact, set us back in the achievements made until 2020, and jeopardizes the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals.   

COVID-19 has made even more evident the structural weaknesses of our systems to prevent and combat all forms of violence against women, but it is also a powerful call for effective action by governments, civil society, the private sector and international organizations.   

To begin, women should be at the center of all policies, actions and decision making processes aimed at post-COVID recovery, incorporating an intersectional approach and including organizations representing different groups of women.  

 We need to work together to eliminate traditional gender stereotypes, discrimination and violence against women in their diversity of all ages: rural, Afro-descendant, indigenous, LGBTIQ+, migrant or mobile, and those with disabilities.   

Twenty-five years ago, the world adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, which establishes women's equal rights to participate in government through public office and decision-making spaces. A strong statement of principles that, unfortunately, has not been sufficient for substantive progress.   

Early last year, at the XIV Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean in Chile, we adopted the Santiago Commitment "to accelerate the effective implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action".   

On that occasion, we again reviewed what mechanisms, what laws and even what financing we need to ensure that there are more women in politics, in government, in positions of leadership and decision-making.   

The regional forum I mentioned at the beginning was the Regional Consultation in preparation for the global meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, the independent United Nations body that oversees compliance with the Beijing agreements, which we co-organized in our region with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). This event was also an opportunity for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to share their responses to the crisis and commit to legislation, public policies and funds to promote women's participation in public life and decision-making, as well as the elimination of violence against women and girls.   

It is an effort in which we want to involve men and women to achieve a common goal: to end the shadow pandemic that has already lasted much longer than the other. We have a lot to do, it is time to get to work. We cannot continue to live in societies that endorse violence against women. We have seen that despite all the normative advances in our region, Justice and the State have yet to modernize and update norms and practices to guarantee and protect the rights of women and girls to a life free of violence.   

It is time to build a culture of peace and gender equality that will allow us to overcome the so-called development traps in Latin America and the Caribbean, because without substantive equality we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Originally published in El Nacional on March 8, 2021