Reducing violence against women and girls through legal empowerment


Violence and crime are among the most common justice problems people face, as identified in the Justice for All report. The pandemic has sparked new urgency in particular around Justice for Women, due to curtailed access to justice institutions at a time of rising gender-based violence.

This guest blog discusses how legal empowerment groups around the world stepped up as first responders over the last 18 months, as they continued to support women and girls in situations of violence, and collaborated with state institutions to cover the gaps in service provision and support. The authors have analyzed these experiences and chart a path forward for states, development actors, and civil society as they rethink and adapt their strategies to reduce violence against women and girls.

By Denise Dora (Themis — Gênero, Justiça, Direitos Humanos), Jasminka Friscik (Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women, ESE), Linette du Toit Lubuulwa (FIDA Uganda), Sara Hossain (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, BLAST), and Luciana Bercovich and Marta Almela Menjón (Namati).

UN Photo / Staton Winter

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls across the world continue to be the most impacted by its fallouts: they are losing their livelihoods, taking on increased unpaid care duties, and increasingly exposed to violence.

The surge in gender-based violence (GBV) stood out as a clear consequence of lockdowns and movement restriction measures during the height of the pandemic. Governments struggled to adopt a gender perspective in their pandemic responses. This resulted in a closure of courts, shelters and other essential services for women in situations of violence.

In a moment of greater vulnerability and regression of rights, women found fewer avenues to report threats or acts of violence, access justice and receive vital support. In response, legal empowerment groups around the world stepped up, continuing to support women and girls in situations of violence, and collaborating with state institutions to cover the gaps in service provision and support. How? By helping women know, use and shape the law; providing basic information about their rights to protection from violence and available remedies and resources; and covering basic needs such as food, personal protective equipment, and access to mobile communications and the internet.

The role of legal empowerment groups as first responders was enabled by three key elements: the implementation of community-based responses based on their pre-existing presence and trust within communities; the use of technology and the combination of online and in-person activities; and the collaboration with other actors — including other CSOs, but also local and national institutions, such as courts, shelters, law-enforcing agencies, and healthcare providers.

In Brazil, for example, Themis — Gender, Justice and Human Rights developed a formal partnership with the judiciary in the city of Canoas. Through this agreement, the organization’s community paralegals were able -via mobile phone- to offer guidance and support to women granted emergency protective measures, and monitor compliance with such measures.

In Bangladesh, BLAST and other NGOS pioneered online advice lines and alternative dispute resolution, conducted awareness programs on social media, and through a coalition advocated for the police to record complaints online.

In Uganda, FIDA’s collaborative relationships with local police across different districts allowed them to remain operational in certain areas and provide a more comprehensive response. Community legal volunteers also played a key role in FIDA’s strategy. This has prompted the organization to initiate a nationwide paralegal training.

In North Macedonia, ESE hosted an online legal platform called “Ask for Advice”, where women could post questions about domestic violence, divorce, child custody, court procedures for protection orders or criminal prosecutions, among others. This platform was connected to service providers at the organization’s Legal Aid Center.

These actions constitute evidence of how people-centered and community-based approaches have proven essential to support women and girls in situations of violence, during and beyond crisis. Community paralegals play an essential role linking women to institutions of response, by accompanying them, demanding greater accountability, and raising awareness about existing laws and available mechanisms. Community-response centers make the most of community spaces such as shops, pharmacies, or places of worship, allowing women to report violence and find support without putting themselves at greater risk. Community radio is a trusted platform through which to produce community-led content, disseminate information, and build the capacities of rural and indigenous communities.

Cross-regional collective learning to advance gender justice

The Legal Empowerment Network brings together groups working to advance justice in more than 150 countries around the world. As our members continued providing direct support to women in situations of violence during the pandemic, we had the opportunity to conduct a participatory cross-regional research initiative among 19 members from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia.

The report “Gender Justice During and Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis”, drew on this participatory and qualitative research, including analysis from surveys, semi-structured interviews, regional and global focus group discussions, secondary data, as well as case studies.

It serves as an initial step aiming to document and analyze in real time the experiences of legal empowerment groups working on the frontlines to support women in situations of violence under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. It sets out the challenges they faced, the shifts in their approach, their strategies, and learnings which can help us and other actors for the future.

The report identified common issues, challenges and strategies across regions with very different contexts. Organizations faced similar challenges with regard to: a) justice related interventions not being recognized as “essential”, and therefore being hampered by movement restrictions, lockdowns and related measures; b) adapting as an organization, incorporating an immediate humanitarian response given the crisis context; c) navigating the tension between leveraging technology and bridging the digital divide; d) finding a balance between in-person and online strategies, while acknowledging that in-person accompaniment and support is critical to support women in situations of violence; e) threats to their financial sustainability and challenges to flexibly use their funds to respond to the current needs.

The report also identified common strategies such as the centrality of community paralegals and community engagement; collaboration with other CSOs, state actors at multiple levels, and building on existing networks to provide a rapid comprehensive response; the increased use of technology and community communication channels such as community radios.

Our Common Agenda must end Gender-Based Violence

This year, more than 50,000 people around the world gathered remotely and in person for the Generation Equality Forum to collectively accelerate change for gender equality. The summit was a reminder that gender equality must be a political priority if the world is to build better coming out of this pandemic.

Last week, global leaders championed a “decade of delivery” on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at the UN General Assembly. The SDGs cannot be achieved without addressing gender-based violence. The UN Secretary General, in his report ‘Our Common Agenda’, has identified the central role of people-centered justice in repairing the social contract and in eradicating violence against women and girls, including through an emergency response plan.

As countries pursue the global agenda while responding to new outbreaks of COVID-19 and developing recovery plans, they need to incorporate learnings of organizations working at the frontlines of justice. Not only for crisis response, but also for building comprehensive response models to gender-based violence.

To this end, the report proposes key recommendations for multilateral institutions, grassroots actors, donors, governments, and other actors involved in the GBV response, such as:

  • Designating as ‘essential’ all access to justice services and responses to gender-based violence, -including those provided by CSOs-, enabling their operations in lockdown and movement restriction contexts.
  • Providing flexible, rapid and sustainable funding for legal empowerment groups.
  • Encouraging collaboration and communication between government institutions and civil society actors, especially among justice actors at the community level.
  • Recognizing, supporting and expanding the role of community paralegals and other grassroots actors.
  • Preparing state actors for crisis by proactively establishing protocols to guide emergency actions impacting marginalized groups.
  • Using technology appropriately and addressing the digital divide.

We hope that the experiences gathered in this report can inform states, development actors, and civil society as they rethink and adapt their strategies, and plan for holistic responses to eliminating gender-based violence as a priority.

We also want to express our deepest recognition to women’s rights groups around the world who kept supporting women and girls under these challenging times. They all worked under high stress, with increased work and demand. Brave women like these can and will change the world.