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22 December 2021

A shadow pandemic: addressing the crisis of gender-based violence in Brazil

Paula Tavares

In Brazil in 2020, one woman was killed every six and a half hours as a result of gender-based violence

Shadow pandemic News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

Read the essays

Paula Tavares is a Senior Legal and Gender Specialist at the World Bank Group.

As the world was hit with Covid-19, a “shadow” pandemic emerged, threatening the lives of millions of women and girls. While countries went into lockdown and stay-at-home orders were put in place, warnings of increased violence against women began echoing around the world. The collateral damage of measures adopted to curb the health crisis became clear almost immediately – and it was very much gendered. Many women’s homes, far from providing shelter, simply exposed them to a whole new set of risks.

Even before Covid, gender-based violence was a widespread problem. Estimates suggest that one in three women globally – nearly 736 million – experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, mostly by an intimate partner. Despite the existence of one of the most progressive domestic violence laws in the world, Brazil has the fifth-highest rate of femicide in the world – and the pandemic has intensified this issue in an unprecedented way.

Health and economic crises tend to increase the risks of violence against women, particularly in countries where this is already an issue and where there are high levels of gender inequality, such as Brazil. Data from the last 18 months has confirmed such lessons. Increased economic and emotional stress, social isolation, and mandatory confinement with potential abusers and with children at home created the perfect storm for escalating abuse within four walls. At the same time, women were left with limited access to critical health, security, and justice sector services, resulting in serious threats to lives. The result has been tragic.

In Brazil, like the rest of the world, spikes in calls for help quickly made headlines. In the early months of the crisis, government authorities and women’s organisations in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others, indicated increased reports of domestic violence and heightened demand for emergency shelter, while helplines in Singapore and Cyprus registered an increase in calls by more than 30 per cent.

In Brazil, data from the first two months of confinement measures pointed to a 22 per cent spike in femicides and a 27 per cent increase in calls to the national violence against women helpline. At the same time, in-person reporting of cases at police stations and requests for emergency protection orders declined by around 25 per cent, reflecting the limited access and mobility constraints experienced by those under threat. As the months went by, despite the relaxing of stay-at-home orders and the adoption of policies to enhance support for survivors, rates of violence remained high. Throughout 2020, 1,350 cases of femicide were recorded in Brazil – meaning one woman was killed every six and a half hours as a result of gender-based violence.

The impacts of Covid-19 were disproportionately felt by more disadvantaged groups

A closer look from an intersectional viewpoint shows an even starker image among more vulnerable groups, with youth and Afro-descendent women further bearing the brunt of the violence. Over one-third of femicides in Brazil in 2020 were among women aged 18 to 29, while nearly two-thirds of women murdered were of Afro-descent. The numbers reflect larger and pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities, which often result in disadvantaged groups being disproportionately impacted. Indeed, despite emergency measures, the largest economic shocks of the pandemic have been felt among the already economically vulnerable population and especially by women and girls, who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty.

Importantly, while initial spikes in domestic violence were associated with stay-at-home measures, restrictions on mobility and access to services, in the later stages of the pandemic, it was job losses and constrained finances that contributed to increased abuse within the home and declines in reporting.

As we continue to experience the impacts of Covid and the uncertainty of when the pandemic will end, addressing and mitigating its gendered consequences is critical to ensure women are not left behind.

Addressing gender-based violence requires targeted laws, policies and interventions

Strong legislation is a key first step to addressing the issue. Brazil’s Maria da Penha Law, adopted in 2006, is considered one of the three most advanced domestic violence laws in the world. It covers all forms of violence and some of the measures it implements include mandating the adoption of policies to prevent violence and protect and support survivors, establishing specialised agencies and protection orders, and promoting educational programmes with a gender lens. However, as violence rates in Brazil before and during Covid continue to show, more needs to be done.

As we learned from monitoring policies adopted by different countries, including those in Brazil, targeted policies and interventions for short-term relief should involve strengthening response and support systems, including helplines, psychosocial support and alternative accommodation for women; ensuring minimum budgeting, and human and financial resources to maintain essential services for violence survivors; and expanding awareness and access to information.

In addition, technology-based solutions have proven critical during Covid-19. In particular, innovative adaptations were quickly implemented throughout Brazil to enable access to protection orders, the court system, psychological support and legal aid through digital platforms that will remain in place.

At the same time, medium- to long-term approaches to addressing gender-based violence need to focus on prevention, protection and ensuring more effective redress. It is also imperative that they tacke systemic economic and social inequalities; ensure access to education, social protection support, and decent work; and change discriminatory gender norms.

The global cost of violence against women has previously been estimated at roughly $1.5 trillion. But this was prior to the Covid crisis, and is now surely likely to grow. If unaddressed, the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence will not only cost lives, it will also compound the economic impact of the pandemic. If countries have any hope of “building back better,” it is imperative that women play an active role – and that clear and measurable steps are taken to address gender-based violence.