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Coronavirus pandemic threatens crises-ravaged communities

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A psychosocial counsellor in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp  informed the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) on Thursday that during the first four days of the COVID-19 lockdown she called beneficiaries to let them know that “virtual support” was available.

Orouba Amin has spent 11 years providing psychosocial care to survivors of trauma and violence, from refugees escaping the horrors of war to women and girls escaping sexual abuse and exploitation. Today, her work comes on top of a new threat: the coronavirus pandemic. 

Around the world, as governments implement lockdowns and movement restrictions, women’s centres and safe spaces are closing their doors – even as evidence mounts that gender-based violence may be increasing. 

Countries are also seeing their reproductive health services being curbed as resources are diverted to the pandemic response. Where reproductive health care remains available, movement restrictions and fears of the virus are keeping women from seeking attention.

And communities affected by humanitarian crises are particularly imperiled by these conditions. Many are already struggling with poverty and limited access to health services. Infection-control measures are even harder to implement in densely packed settlements with limited water and sanitation resources. 

These challenges are greatly exacerbated for women who are pregnant, require family planning supplies or need protection from violence.

Nowhere to hide 

In Jordan, where nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, a curfew has been imposed to slow transmission of the virus. This has added hardship in Azraq Camp, where an average of seven people are crowded into each prefabricated shelter. 

She painted a picture of shop owners struggling to import essential food items, scant livelihood options and families facing difficult choices as they try to put food on their tables. 

And as social life increasingly takes place online, so does sexual harassment, one woman told UNFPA

The camp’s safe spaces for women and girls, run by the International Rescue Committee with support from UNFPA, have been closed. 

As Ms. Amin and her colleagues race to find new means of providing services to women and girls in need, she is offering counselling via telephone – but many lack the privacy needed to speak on the phone about sensitive issues while others simly do not have their own phones. 

Ms. Amin also provides assistance via text message and WhatsApp. 

“One of the women texted me on the dedicated WhatsApp number, and when I responded to her, she said, ‘I’m fine now, as I know that you are there for me in case I need you.’ This meant everything to me,” she said. 

Resources vital

In humanitarian situations, women’s vulnerability to violence and exploitation escalates. And even before the pandemic, hundreds of women and girls in humanitarian and fragile settings died each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Now, as health systems and protection services are stressed by the pandemic, conditions for women are poised to worsen. 

UNFPA has urgently called for funding to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, with a requirement of $120 million for UNFPA to ensure the health and safety of women and girls affected by humanitarian crises. In addition, UNFPA has appealed for $67.5 million to support COVID-19 preparedness efforts through March and April. 

This amount – a total of $187.5 million – will go, among other things, towards strengthening health systems and ensuring continuity of services for survivors of gender-based violence. It is separate from the humanitarian funding needed for UNFPA’s ongoing support to crisis-affected countries. 

For both UNFPA’s humanitarian appeal and its COVID-19 response plan, flexible funds are needed to ensure an agile response as conditions on the ground evolve. 

UNFPA is already ramping up efforts to address the pandemic in humanitarian settings, including in central-western Syria. Also under curfew, outreach workers are raising awareness of the pandemic, infection-control measures and women’s rights. 

It is an uphill battle, said Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association in Homs. “The majority of the families we visit are awfully poor and cannot even buy sterilizers,” she said. 

She has also seen widespread gender-based violence and fears it will only intensify. 

“During my visits, I saw a woman being beaten by her husband during the curfew,” said Ms. Bulad. “I think the percentage of gender-based violence will increase and increase dramatically”.

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Human Rights

COVID-19 worsening gender-based violence, trafficking risk, for women and girls

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With the COVID-19 pandemic heightening the dangers of gender-based violence and human trafficking, action on these two fronts is needed now more than ever, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday. 

UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly was speaking during a virtual event to strengthen global commitment at a time when women and girls are locked down and locked in, rendering them further exposed to violence and harassment, or at greater risk of being trafficked. 

“In every part of the world, we are seeing that COVID has worsened the plight of at-risk women and girls, while also hindering criminal justice responses and reducing support to victims,” she said

A ‘shadow pandemic’ surfaces 

Women and girls were already being exposed to different forms of violence before the pandemic.  

Most female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partners or other family members, according to UNODC, while women and girls make up more than 60 per cent of all victims of human trafficking.  

However, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and other measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic” of rising gender-based violence. 

Women’s economic inequality also increases their vulnerability to trafficking and sexual violence, according to UN Women, which supports countries in their efforts to achieve gender equality. 

‘Business is booming’  

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN Women Executive Director, reported that most female survivors, or nearly 80 per cent, are trafficked for sexual exploitation. 

“There are socioeconomic consequences when these crimes happen, but in times of pandemic, the socioeconomic impact is even deeper,” she said.  

“Forty-seven million more women and girls will be pushed to extreme poverty because of COVID-19, but business is booming for traffickers.” 

Meanwhile, as already scant resources allocated for prevention, rescue and rehabilitation wear thin, women’s health is being put on the line, said Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, UNODC Goodwill Ambassador and a survivor of ISIL terrors in Iraq. 

“It is now difficult for many women to access psychological support, healthcare and safe shelter. They live in a constant state of vulnerability. For communities affected by conflict and displacement, these effects are often compounded,” she told the gathering. 

Answering the call 

In April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a worldwide domestic violence “ceasefire”, urging governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the crisis. 

So far, nearly 150 countries have answered the Secretary-General’s call, pledging to make prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of their pandemic response. 

UNODC, alongside UN Women and other partners, are also backing the appeal. 

They are working together to promote action in four key areas: funding essential services, prevention, improving police and justice action, and collecting data. 

Recommendations for recovery 

Ms. Wady, the UNODC chief, emphasized the need to recover better after the pandemic. “Girls need to be able to go back to school and have equal opportunities. Women need decent jobs and social protection,” she said. 

Her colleague, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka at UN Women, pointed to the Secretary-General’s report on trafficking, which outlines additional recommendations. 

They include providing women with universal access to social protection as well as income protection, and designating programmes for trafficking survivors as essential services. 

The report further calls for long-term investment, including to address “toxic masculinity”, and to engage men and boys in programmes aimed at shifting norms and attitudes surrounding violence against women. 

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Human Rights

Global Experts To Convene Online To Discuss Values In A Post-Covid World

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Leading Islamic scholars and experts from around the world, representing government and civil society will convene online to attend the seventh assembly of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies being held between the dates of December 7-9.

The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is led by Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, President of the Higher Academic Council at the new Mohammed bin Zayed University for Humanities in Abu Dhabi, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

The Forum draws upon religious leadership and expertise to enter into productive conversations with academics, politicians, economists, and scientists about futures that are more peaceful, more secure, and more inter-connected for all humankind.

The title of this years Forum is “Human Values After Corona: Reviving Virtue in Times of Crisis.” It will examine how cooperation between nations, their people, and followers of the world religions can promote global peace and the welfare of all. The conference will emphasize the commonality or shared nature of humankind’s destiny at this crucial time. The conference will be unparalleled in its breadth this year hosting the most diverse panel of speakers spanning cultural, academic, governmental, and civic society fields in open conversation and with a shared commitment to positively influence the crisis’ present unfolding and alleviation.

The Forum will also discuss the healthcare dimensions of this pandemic and its effects upon mental health, especially given that the preservation of the human intellect is one of the overarching concerns of Islamic sacred law. Moreover, the guests will discuss how humanity may join hands across cultures and religions to create a new world that is human-centric and which prioritizes humanity’s wellbeing over other interests. Participants will also discuss the present economic crisis and the ethics of solidarity, as well as prospects for how the New Alliance of Virtue – signed by representatives of the world’s religions in Abu Dhabi last year – may be utilized in the process of our world’s upcoming ‘rebirth’.

Notable attendees will include:  the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Ambassador Sam Brownback, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Chief Rabbi of the UK, Professor Azza Karam,, Mr. Robert Wexler, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, HE Noor-Ul-Haq Qadri, From Michael Sandel, Prof Sir Michael Marmot, Dr William Vendley,  and Professor Melissa Rogers, Rehman Chishti MP, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College.

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The pandemic is fuelling slavery and sexual exploitation, UN experts warn

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UN human rights experts are warning of a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, including forced labour or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. © UNICEF/Noorani

The COVID-19 pandemic has played into the hands of slavers and traffickers and requires stronger government measures to prevent exploitation of vulnerable people, more than 50 independent UN human rights experts said in a statement on Monday. 

There was a direct link between the pandemic, socio-economic vulnerability and the risk of exploitation, they said. Exploitation could mean forced labour, including the worst forms of child labour, or being sold, trafficked and sexually exploited. 

Governments and businesses should recognise how the loss of jobs, income or land could put vulnerable groups at greater risk, such as people already facing discrimination on grounds of sex, race, age, disability, religion, nationality and economic status, and people without basic services such as sanitation and education.

“If workers don’t receive adequate economic, social and other support from governments, without discrimination on grounds of migration and other status, they face serious risk of exploitation, including being subjected to slavery, servitude, forced or bonded labour, or trafficking in persons”, the statement said.

“In this regard, we are concerned that these practices have increased in the past months. In some cases, victims are further subjected to ill-treatment, torture, or even disappearance when they are prevented from informing as to their fate and whereabouts and put outside the protection of the law.”

Signatories to the statement included many Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups –independent experts who report to the UN Human Rights Council – as well as the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which was set up by the UN General Assembly in 1991. 

Governments must do more to protect victims

They said governments must increase their efforts to identify and protect victims of slavery and trafficking, ensuring their access to essential health services, including reproductive health services, psycho-social counselling, legal assistance, vocational training, income-generating support and remedies without discrimination.

Governments should also try to remove social and employment inequalities that can make some people more at risk of slavery and exploitation, while international solidary was needed to ensure child protection was adequately funded, the human rights experts said.

“We call upon Member States and other entities to address the structural causes that contribute to slavery and exploitation and continue providing support to those offering comprehensive assistance to victims, including through contributions to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year”, they said.

The statement’s first signatory, Tomoya Obokata, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, plans to hold a webinar on Tuesday to discuss aid for racially discriminated groups subjected to slavery during the global pandemic.

The statement was issued ahead of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, which marks the day in 1949 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first Convention to fight human trafficking.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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