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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

First international treaty to address violence and harassment comes into force

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The first international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work comes into force on June 25th 2021 – two years after it was adopted by the ILO’s International Labour Conference (ILC).

To date, six countries have ratified the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190)  – Argentina, Ecuador, Fiji, Namibia, Somalia and Uruguay. Ratifying countries are legally bound by the provisions of the Convention a year after ratification.

Together with Recommendation No. 206 , Convention No. 190 recognizes the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment and provides a common framework for action.

It provides the first international definition of violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment.

Violence and harassment at work takes a range of forms and leads to physical, psychological, sexual and economic harm. Since the adoption of the Convention, the COVID-19 pandemic  has further highlighted the issue, with many forms of work-related violence and harassment being reported across countries since the outbreak began, particularly against women and vulnerable groups.

To mark its entering into force the ILO will launch a global campaign to promote its ratification and implementation. The campaign aims to explain in simple terms what the Convention is, the issues it covers and how it seeks to address violence and harassment in the world of work.

“A better future of work is free of violence and harassment,” said Guy Ryder, the ILO Director-General in his message to launch the global campaign.

“Convention 190 calls on all ILO Member States to eradicate violence and harassment in all its forms from the world of work. I urge countries to ratify the Convention and help build, together with employers and workers and their organizations, a dignified, safe and healthy working life for all.”

The global campaign will be launched during the ILO Action Week on Convention No. 190 , which takes place 21-25 June 2021.

The Action Week calls for renewed commitment from countries to ratify and implement the Convention.

The Action Week begins on 21 June with a virtual high-level dialogue . The speakers will include the ILO Director-General, Ministers of Labour from Argentina and Madagascar, and representatives of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

Following the Action Week, the ILO will launch a guide aimed at helping constituents and other stakeholders promote and implement the Convention and Recommendation. The guide covers core principles and measures that countries can take to prevent, address and eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, including examples of national laws, regulations and policies.

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Famine risk spikes amid conflict, COVID-19 and funding gaps

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Mobile health clinics are distributing nutritional supplements to children in Yemen. WFP/Saleh Bin Haiyan

The impact of conflicts old and new, climate shocks and COVID-19, in addition to a lack of funding, have left millions more on the verge of famine than six months ago, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.

In an appeal for $5 billion “to avoid famine” and support the “biggest operation in its history”, WFP spokesperson Phiri Tomson said that millions of refugees faced “uncertainty and hunger” as the impact of the pandemic on emergency aid budgets became clearer.

“The number of people teetering on the brink of famine has risen from 34 million projected at the beginning of the year, to 41 million projected as of June”, he said. “Without immediate emergency food assistance, they too face starvation, as the slightest shock will push them over the cliff into famine conditions.”

From bad to worse

According to the latest IPC food insecurity assessments – which humanitarians use to assess needs on a scale of one to five – the 41 million “are people who are in IPC phase 4 – emergency”, the WFP spokesperson explained.

New refugee influxes linked to conflict and drought have increased needs for people in “IPC phase 5 – catastrophe” and “that number stands at 584,000 people”, Mr. Phiri continued. “These are people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Madagascar, particularly the southern part; South Sudan, especially as we are now at the height of the lean season in that country, and Yemen.”

‘Brutal choices’

Launching its Global Operational Response Plan, the UN agency highlighted operations in no less than eight countries and regions where it has had to make “brutal choices” because of significant funding shortfalls.

In practice, this has meant reduced rations “across east and southern Africa, as well as the Middle East…among some of the world’s most vulnerable people who rely on WFP to survive”, said Mr. Phiri.

“In some cases it’s 40 per cent, in some cases it’s 25 per cent, in some cases it’s 60 per cent…The fact is, the assistance we provide is a basic need, the assistance we provide is just enough to help people get by.”

West and Central Africa in crisis

For many vulnerable aid recipients in West and Central Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has left them without the opportunity to work to supplement their rations and unable to pay for increasingly expensive staple foods. “Countries like Chad, Niger and Burkina, Mauritania; these are all countries of concern, including Sierra Leone as well,” said Mr. Phiri, after a warning by the UN agency that the world was no longer moving towards Zero Hunger.

“Progress has stalled, reversed, and today, more than 270 million people are estimated to be acutely food insecure or at high risk in 2021,” it said in a statement.

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Human Rights

Forced displacement at record level, despite COVID shutdowns

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Congolese asylum-seekers line up to undergo security and health screening in Zombo, near the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. © UNHCR/Rocco Nuri

The number of people fleeing wars, violence, persecution, and human rights violations, rose last year to nearly 82.4 million people, a further four percent increase on top of the already record-high of 79.5 million, recorded at the end of 2019.

According to the UN Refugee Agency flagship Global Trends Report published on Friday, the restrictive COVID-19 pandemic did not slow forced displacement around the world, and instead could have left thousands of refugees and asylum seekers stranded and vulnerable.

The new ‘one percent’

Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a concerted global ceasefire, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, more than one percent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

The agency explains that while the full impact of the pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.

New and old crises

According to UNHCR, several crises – some new, some longstanding and some resurfacing after years – forced 11.2 million people to flee in 2020, compared to 11.0 million in 2019.

The figure includes people displaced for the first time as well as people displaced repeatedly, both within and beyond countries’ borders.

By the end of 2020, there were 20.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. Another 48 million people were internally displaced (IDPs) within their own countries.

Driven mostly by crises in Ethiopia, Sudan, Sahel countries, Mozambique, Yemen, Afghanistan and Colombia, the number of internally displaced people rose by more than 2.3 million.

When considering only international displacement situations, Syria topped the list with 6.8 million people, followed by Venezuela with 4.9 million. Afghanistan and South Sudan came next, with 2.8 and 2.2 million respectively.

Turkey continued to host the largest number of refugees with just under 4 million, most of whom were Syrian refugees (92%). Colombia followed, hosting over 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans.

Germany hosted the third-largest population – almost 1.5 million, with Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers as the largest group (44%). Pakistan and Uganda completed the top-5 hosting countries, with about 1.4 million each.

The COVID-19 crisis also hit the forcibly displaced hard, who faced increased food and economic insecurity as well as challenges to access health and protection services.

At the peak of the last year, over 160 countries had closed their borders, with 99 States making no exception for people seeking protection.

According to UNHCR, the dynamics of poverty, food insecurity, climate change, conflict and displacement are increasingly interconnected and mutually reinforcing, driving more and more people to search for safety and security.

A call to end the suffering

UNHCR is urging world leaders to step up their efforts to foster peace, stability and cooperation in order to halt and begin reversing nearly a decade-long trend of surging displacement driven by violence and persecution.

“Behind each number is a person forced from their home and a story of displacement, dispossession and suffering. They merit our attention and support not just with humanitarian aid, but in finding solutions to their plight”, reminded the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

In a statement, Mr. Grandi underscored that while the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Global Compact on Refugees provide the legal framework and tools to respond to displacement, a much greater political will is needed to address conflicts and persecution that force people to flee.

“The tragedy of so many children being born into exile should be reason enough to make far greater efforts to prevent and end conflict and violence,” he added.

Girls and boys under the age of 18 account for 42 percent of all forcibly displaced. They are particularly vulnerable, especially when crises continue for years.

New UNHCR estimates show that almost one million children were born as refugees between 2018 and 2020. Many of them may remain refugees for years to come.

Low rate of return

The agency emphasized that over the course of 2020, some 3.2 million internally displaced and just 251,000 refugees returned to their homes –a 40 and 21 percent drop, respectively, compared to 2019. Another 33,800 refugees were naturalized by their countries of asylum.

Refugee resettlement registered a drastic plunge with just 34,400 refugees resettled, the lowest level in 20 years – a consequence of a reduced number of resettlement places and COVID-19.

“Solutions require global leaders and those with influence to put aside their differences, end an egoistic approach to politics, and instead focus on preventing and solving conflict and ensuring respect for human rights,” urged Grandi.

The UN Refugee agency reminded that 2020 is the ninth year of uninterrupted rise in forced displacement worldwide. There are twice as many forcibly displaced people than in 2011 when the total was just under 40 million.

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