In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated gender-based violence, taking a huge toll on women and girls around the world. As countries went into lockdown and borders closed, reports of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, began to rise.

Sarah Nyajuok is a 24-year-old South Sudanese refugee living at Kakuma camp in Kenya. She decided to train as a community worker after witnessing her mother’s experience of gender-based violence.

As the threat of COVID-19 reached refugee camps, the need for safe spaces and services for women victims of domestic violence became even more urgent.

“The problem of domestic violence got much worse during lockdown,” Sarah says. “Clients tell us that their situation is more dangerous, that they are not safe because the perpetrators are always there.”

In Kakuma, refugee community workers have been trained by UNHCR’s partner organisation the Danish Refugee Council to identify and refer cases of gender-based violence – which can include sexual, physical, mental and economic harm.

Gender-based violence disproportionately affects women and girls and can involve threats of violence, coercion, manipulation, child marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called 'honour crimes'.

“The problem of domestic violence got much worse during lockdown.”

“We are also receiving cases of forced marriages,” Sarah says. “Schools have been closed and parents don’t want their daughters to stay at home so many girls are being forced back to their homeland for marriages. I think there should be more help for gender-based violence survivors, like women’s centres.”

16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign that runs from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. It provides an opportunity to shine a light on the need for funding, support and essential services.

“Pandemic-induced poverty is having a particular impact on women and girls,” says Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Reports of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriage and exploitation, are increasing.”

“I think there should be more help for gender-based violence survivors.”

Sarah Nyajuok, a South Sudanese refugee living at Kakuma camp in Kenya, decided to train as a community worker after witnessing her mother’s experience of gender-based violence. © UNHCR/ S.Otieno

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is committed to protecting women and girls from gender-based violence and works with partners, governments and communities to implement prevention programs.

UNHCR also runs programs to respond to sexual violence at the onset of an emergency and at all stages of displacement, providing survivors with medical, psychosocial and livelihood support, working to change community attitudes to violence against women and providing training for gender-based violence responders.

Mary Husuro is a 26-year-old South Sudanese refugee also living in Kakuma camp. Like Sarah, she decided to become a gender-based violence worker following her own experience of violence.

Women at the Women's Centre in Kalobeyei Settlement in Kakuma – most of them gender-based violence survivors – are trained in gardening as a livelihood activity and to help improve nutrition.

“Back in my country [South Sudan], because of the culture we’re governed by, women were always looked down upon and no one hears their voice,” Sarah says.

“I decided I’ll work hand in hand with any organisation [supporting] women’s rights and hearing their cries.”

Mary Husuro helps water vegetables at a women's centre in Kalobeyei settlement in Kakuma. The women – most of them gender-based violence survivors – are trained in gardening as a livelihood activity and to improve nutrition. © UNHCR/ S.Otieno

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