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Out from the Shadows: Gender Based Violence in Times of Crisis

Camille Luchs | Indo-Pacific Fellow

Image credit: Christian Chen via Unsplash

Gender based violence (GBV) is one of the most urgent security threats facing the Indo-Pacific. In the past 12 months, the proportion of women who have reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner ranges between 4 percent to 48 percent across the region.


A whole-of-region response is required to tackle GBV. However, blanket solutions cannot comprehensively address the diverse cultural and economic factors which influence how GBV manifests across the Indo-Pacific. The rise of GBV in Southeast Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic and its increase during natural disasters in the Pacific Islands illustrates this point. Ultimately, these case studies demonstrate why the Indo-Pacific requires a broad range of targeted local solutions to tackle GBV.


Technology, GBV and COVID-19 in Southeast Asia


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate gender-based security risks in the Indo-Pacific. When analysing regional security through a gendered lens, it is evident that the economic and socio-cultural impacts of COVID-19 were often magnified for women. These impacts include an increased burden of care and unpaid labour in the home, as well as increased vulnerability to violence and abuse due to stay-at-home orders.


Whilst GBV experienced a global uptick during COVID-19, women in Southeast Asia notably bore the brunt of this ‘shadow pandemic’. Two weeks following the enaction of work-from-home requirements, the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice Legal Aid Institute experienced a threefold increase in the volume of case referrals. One year after the beginning of the pandemic, Singapore and Malaysia reported a respective increase of 33% and 40% in calls to domestic violence hotlines. In Vietnam, the Women’s Union domestic violence hotline experienced a 50% increase during social distancing restrictions. The staggering rise in GBV during COVID-19 was felt throughout the region, challenging ASEAN principles of non-interference as Southeast Asian states grappled with the unfolding crisis.


The increase in GBV in Southeast Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic can be explained by a variety of factors. Sector disruption and unemployment created economic pressure in homes around the region. This drove many families in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia to pursue child and forced marriages. Child marriages provide financial relief for families by reducing their number of dependents and briefly boosting their income via dowry. However, child marriage perpetuates gender-based violence as girls are forced into marriages that increase their vulnerability to domestic and sexual violence.


Furthermore, financial stress and job loss intersected with alcohol consumption and other triggers, resulting in a surge of first-time offenders in the region. At the government level,  militaristic-style pandemic responses increased the vulnerability of women and minority groups to abuses of power. In the Philippines, for example, women reported cases of law enforcement requesting sexual favours to clear quarantine checkpoints. Thus, a combination of poverty, gendered cultural norms, weak institutions and corruption increased Southeast Asian women’s vulnerability to GBV during COVID-19.


Climate Change, Natural Disasters and GBV in the Pacific Islands


In a similar vein, natural disasters impact gender security in the Indo-Pacific. The Pacific Islands are a focal area for understanding natural disasters and GBV, as numerous natural disasters have coincided with a higher volume of requests for GBV support in the islands. A recent study of online behaviour in Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga revealed that people searched more frequently for terms associated with GBV during crises than outside of crises. These crises included weather events and natural disasters such as La Niña weather patterns, tsunamis, cyclones, as well as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.


Natural disasters create conditions that increase women’s vulnerability to GBV. Risk factors include forced relocation and resource shortages, as well as strain and increased economic burden. During drought periods, for example, women and children are more likely to walk longer distances to water wells, resulting in higher reporting of rape and abuse in states such as Micronesia and Kiribati. Additionally, in a case study report on Samoa, relocation was identified as a root cause of increased GBV risk post-disaster. These factors are further compounded by poorly resourced natural disaster relief facilities in the Pacific Islands. Conditions such as inadequate lighting in toilets and lack of privacy in shelters have been identified as increasing the risk of GBV.


With the ongoing impacts of climate change, the heightened risk of GBV during natural disasters in the Pacific Islands is likely to increase and intensify without regional intervention. The Pacific Islands have some of the highest reporting rates of intimate partner violence in the Indo-Pacific, with the highest rate in Kiribati at 68 per cent of female respondents, followed by Fiji (64%), Solomon Islands (64%), Vanuatu (60%) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (51%).  Even so, stigma surrounds GBV reporting in the Pacific, extending from the family to the village. It is therefore likely that GBV reporting remains inaccurate, given that women and girls still face significant community barriers in seeking GBV support. Consequently, a tailored response to the unique circumstances of Pacific Island countries which tackles both climate change and local attitudes surrounding GBV is required.  


Regional Intervention, Local Solutions


By investigating the relationship between various crises and the rate of GBV in areas like Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, we can simultaneously appreciate both its regional scope and complex local manifestations. Whilst GBV organisations have called upon respective regional bodies like ASEAN to contravene its principle of non-interference and prioritise protecting women’s rights, it is evident that further action is needed – both across the Indo-Pacific and at the local level to equally conquer shared and diverse challenges. Crises and GBV are not isolated to singular blocs or countries within the region. Indo-Pacific states should seize the opportunity to learn from, and work with, one another to decisively tackle GBV.

Camille Luchs is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is currently completing a double degree in Justice and Business at Queensland University of Technology.

As a 2022 Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar and New Colombo Plan Scholar, Camille has completed studies in Japan and Singapore. Camille is passionate about exploring the region’s security challenges, with a specific focus on women’s leadership. She is currently completing an internship in leadership development in Fiji, before travelling to Taiwan to complete another internship in security policy.


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