This blog summarises the findings, insights and recommendations shared by our expert panel in the webinar “GBV & Social Protection in COVID-19 and beyond – evidence & emerging practice”, which was held on September 10, 2020 and co-organised by UNICEF, the World Bank, the FCDO and UN Women and hosted, resulting from the SPIAC-B Gender Working Group collaboration.

The speakers were Lori Heise, Professor of Social Epidemiology; Melissa Alvarado, Ending Violence Against Women Programme Manager, UN Women; Lorena Fuentes, Co-founder and Principal, Ladysmith, and Natalia Winder-Rossi, Associate Director of Social Policy, UNICEF. The discussion was chaired by Caren Grown, World Bank Global Director, Gender.*

 *Due to unforeseen technical reasons, Caren Grown was unable to join and opening remarks were presented by Natalia Winder-Rossi.

You can view the presentation slides and recording here.


COVID-19 and the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence

Although COVID-19 is a health pandemic and socio-economic crisis, evidence has demonstrated the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence (GBV) that exists alongside it. Data from Singapore, Argentina, France and many other contexts has demonstrated a spike in calls to domestic violence helplines. Reports indicate an increase in sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment - including against women health workers - and child, early and forced marriage. Lockdown measures have constrained access to services for survivors.

The role of social protection

Social protection has emerged as a key pillar of the immediate response during COVID-19, and the scale of the social protection response is striking (over 1000 social protection measures introduced). The evidence linking cash transfers to reductions in intimate partner violence (IPV) is growing rapidly. Yet cash transfer programmes are often designed to be used to respond to monetary poverty and economic vulnerability. The panel noted that if changes in programme design can be made which lead to a reduction in IPV, this would be a major win for gender equality, and further social protection objectives on multi-dimensional aspects of poverty. Effectively leveraging social protection programmes and systems, which often have significant reach, has significant potential.

Speakers also acknowledged concerns about risks of backlash and increased GBV, particularly for non-GBV specialists. Speakers emphasized the need to better understand the potential impacts, implement risk mitigation measures as a minimum, and monitor for potential adverse effects. Caren’s opening remarks emphasized that this does not mean that we should not design programmes that more intentionally look to decrease IPV.

What does the evidence say?

Professor Lori Heise presented the current evidence base on behalf of the Cash Transfer and IPV Research Collaborative, situating cash transfers as one aspect of social protection systems and instruments, where there is more evidence.

A rigorous mixed method review of what is known about the impact of cash transfers on intimate partner violence in LMICs (published in 2018, presented with some updates) found that:

  • The majority (73%) of studies show a decrease in intimate partner violence. No studies showed an increase. Two studies showed mixed impacts, and a couple showed that no relationship could be identified.
  • Most impacts appear to be in the region of 7-15% reduction in overall IPV. This is despite the fact that none of the programmes were designed to specifically decrease IPV.
  • Results appear to be clearer on physical and sexual violence as opposed to emotional violence and controlling behaviour (noting the limitations of studies in this area)
  • There are three main identified pathways through which cash appears to be working to influence IPV: (1) household level impact related to economic security and emotional well-being; (2) the impact of access to cash (or lack of cash) on the dynamic between the couple; and (3) the individual level impact on the woman’s empowerment.

Findings from a review of social safety nets and their impacts on violence against children and adolescents in LMICs also indicate promising results to reduce the risk of sexual exploitation or abuse (it seems largely through reducing the need of younger girls to have sex with older men or different men in order to get access to resources). However there are many research gaps here and a need to better understand the diverse mechanisms at work.

How does this sit within the programmatic work on GBV?

Melissa Alvarado emphasized the importance of linkages between women’s economic status and empowerment with GBV. She emphasized that women’s long-term economic security, autonomy and power in an intimate relationship are key factors in preventing violence, referencing that in Bangladesh, women with higher educational attainment and engaged in paid work are less likely to experience violence. She also highlighted that GBV creates sudden shocks and vulnerabilities that are not always recognised or responded to by social protection plans or responses.

The RESPECT framework profiles the leading programmatic approaches that have evidence to support reductions in GBV, including:

  • Relationship skills strengthening
  • Empowerment of women (economic and social)
  • Services ensured
  • Poverty reduction (strategies targeted to women or the household, whose primary aim is to alleviate monetary poverty)
  • Environments made safe (schools, public space and work environments amongst others)
  • Child and adolescent abuse prevented (noting the overlap between violence against children and violence against women)
  • Transformed attitudes, beliefs and norms

Within these broad approaches, the following interventions have been identified as promising based on evidence to date: group-based workshops with women and men; social empowerment training for women or girls (e.g. life skills, safe spaces and mentoring); inheritance and asset ownership policies and interventions; social and economic empowerment combined; economic transfers (cash or food); parenting interventions, and community mobilization. These interventions appear to be particularly effective when men and boys are engaged.

There is also important evidence indicating what is ineffective, including: microfinance or savings interventions without any additional components; group workshops with men only, and standalone awareness raising.

What do the needs and opportunities look like on the ground: insights from the Colombian-Venezuelan border

Melissa and Lorena both emphasized that material and financial aid is a critical component of essential services for survivors of violence against women and girls. They noted the importance of including GBV specialists and women and girls themselves in the process of design, implementation and evaluation.

Lorena Fuentes emphasised that GBV was a pandemic before COVID-19, that has been exacerbated and is chronically under-reported. She provided an overview of rapid analysis based on Ladysmith’s work at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and their project ‘Cosas de Mujeres’. Through their Gender Data Kit, they aim to collect and use qualitative and quantitative data to bring women’s voices and analysis to the forefront. Through this they were able to provide targeted information in response to women’s need for specific quality survivor services, better understand Venezuelan and Colombian women’s experiences of GBV during migration journeys and resettlement, and feed analysis directly to organisations serving these women – including GBV survivor specific services but also health, food, cash, or employment. During COVID-19, as elsewhere, the country lockdown resulted in access to critical services being severely limited.

Key findings of the project:

  • The majority of requests for GBV information overlapped with requests for elements of social protection, such as food vouchers, cash transfers, etc. Nearly three quarters of women who reached out between March and August 2020 requested social protection support alongside GBV support
  • Women lack information about where to go for help and struggled to access what was advertised as available
  • Policymakers and service providers lack accurate and useful data, impeding an effective response
  • Women’s needs far outweigh availability and accessibility of existing GBV and social protection services, with significant and particular barriers for refugee women. Responses such as unconditional cash transfers were still not accessible to many in this group
  • There are significant challenges posed for women trying to access social protection via humanitarian groups working on independent schedules, needs assessments, and different eligibility rules.

This illustrates the significant challenges and urgent needs that exist. It particularly underlines the importance of coordination and information sharing between different sectors to provide an accessible service, and the scaling up social protection systems and GBV response and prevention efforts, including by governments and grassroots feminist organisations.

The way forward

From this rich discussion, Natalia Winder-Rossi articulated several core themes that emerged on how to move forward with what we know. In particular:

  • The importance of social protection as part of the inclusive recovery following COVID-19, and the critical need to address gaps in social protection coverage. In particular, the need to better respond to vulnerable and marginalised groups including women, children, older people, those in the informal sector and those working in the care economy;
  • The strong indication that cash transfers are a promising avenue in seeking to reduce IPV, and the need for more research to better understand pathways, effective combinations of interventions, other forms of social protection, different forms of violence, and the impact on violence against adolescents and children. In addition, the need to share and socialize the existing evidence amongst different actors;
  • The potential offered by design and adaptation of social protection programmes with GBV in mind, including the importance of integrated programming and developing ‘plus’ programmes alongside cash transfer programmes;
  • The need to anticipate the potential for the risk of backlash in programming, and take mitigating actions in design and implementation as a minimum, noting new tailored guidance UNICEF is field testing in the sector;
  • The opportunities to more effectively respond to survivors’ needs through social protection, such as training frontline social protection workers on how to respond to disclosures of GBV;
  • The value for practitioners and researchers in crossing the siloes between social protection, women’s economic empowerment, violence against women and girls, humanitarian actors and different government ministries respectively, to learn, integrate approaches and maximise the benefits for women and children.

The webinar finished with a lively and engaging Q&A, accessible here.


This was the thirty-first webinar of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations. Join the online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-19 [Task force]'' to learn more about the initiative and future webinars.

The SPIAC-B Gender Working Group, consisting of representatives from several agencies, including UNICEF, DFID, FAO, IPC-IG, UNICEF Innocenti, UN Women among others, is organising webinars of the larger Social Protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. You can join the Gender-Responsive Social Protection Online Community if you are interested in learning about the gender impacts of COVID-19.