The webinar entitled ‘Social Protection and Violence against Women and Girls in the Indo Pacific region: Responding to COVID-19 was part of the ‘Social protection responses to COVID-19’ webinar series and took place on August 18. The session aimed to explore the potential role of social protection in responding to the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women and girls (VAWG) during COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific.

This webinar was organised by the SPIAC-B Gender Working Group, in collaboration with the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). During the discussion, the panelists were able to identify key opportunities and actionable recommendations for actors working on social protection responses to COVID-19 in the region and at the intersection of long-term and emergency (humanitarian) situations.

The session was moderated by Julie-Ann Guivarra, Ambassador for Gender Equality, and Sarah Goulding, Assistant Secretary Education, Social Protection and Human Development Finance Branch at DFAT. They were joined by four expert speakers: Dr Amber Peterman, Department of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Social Policy Consultant; Melissa Alvarado, Ending Violence against Women (EVAW) Regional Programme Manager at UN Women, Asia-Pacific Regional Office; Nalini Singh, Executive Director, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement; and Lara Quarterman, Independent Consultant (Social Protection and VAWG).

You can find the presentation here and the session's recording here.


An evidence view

As a response to social and economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have implemented over a thousand social protection measures. About 60% of these measures were taken in the form of social assistance, including cash transfer programmes, which were relatively generous but considerably short in period of time (around 3 months). The graph below shows that countries in the East Asia Pacific region have had a substantial response, however most of these social protection responses are not gender sensitive, revealing an important gap in the design and adaptation of social protection schemes worldwide.

Amber Peterman presented the findings of two recent mixed-method reviews published in 2018 about the interaction between cash transfers and intimate partner violence (IPV) and violence against children (VAC). The results show robust evidence linking poverty-targeted cash transfers to a reduction in IPV, with the majority of studies (73%) demonstrating a decrease in IPV. A significant decrease was noticed in physical and sexual violence, followed by a slight decrease in emotional and psychological violence. Although strong, the evidence was heavily skewed to Latin America and Africa, therefore there is still a big gap in evidence for the Pacific region.

Based on these results and taking into consideration broader research on cash transfers, three main pathways through which the decrease in violence is occurring were presented. The first pathway is at the ‘household level’, where greater financial security, provided by the cash transfers, leads to emotional wellbeing and decreases poverty-related stress which results in a reduction of IPV. The second pathway focuses on a ‘couple level’ where day-to-day needs of both partners are met as a result of the cash transfers, reducing the occurrence of conflicts that might result in IPV. Evidence of this second pathway is not strong in the literature, but it cannot be discarded as a possibility. The third pathway operates through women’s empowerment, whereby the cash transfers help women enhance their autonomy and relationship power, which makes them less likely to suffer violence. It is important to mention that in some settings, where there are restrictive gender norms, cash transfers specifically to women may possibly increase IPV. More research is needed to understand the underlying mechanisms.

The evidence for links between cash transfers and VAC is more complex than for IPV. A review of 11 studies showed promising results for adolescent girls in mitigating against sexual abuse and exploitation. However, it showed less evidence for a reduction in incidences of violent discipline and other types of violence. Despite some promising results, the evidence is still weak. In this case, there are also some regional gaps in the findings, which include the Pacific region.

In conclusion, there are currently not enough studies that look at IPV and VAC and their relationship to cash transfers, therefore more research is needed. However, Amber Peterman and colleagues’ findings strongly indicate that cash transfers and other social protection measures targeting women have the possibility to mitigate IPV and VAC. There is a big gap in the data when it comes to East Asia and the Pacific regions. The good news is that there are some ongoing studies that might help close these gaps in the future. It is worth highlighting that COVID-19 is an opportunity to address violence against women, girls and children and by creating economic and social measures that are gender-sensitive.


Mitigating violence against women

Violence against women is globally widespread. This is also the case in the Indo Pacific region where many countries display extremely high rates of IPV. The global average is that one in every three women in their lifetime experience physical and sexual violence in a relationship and, for some countries in the Indo Pacific region, this statistic increases to two out of three women. Some changes are occurring, according to scale population-based studies, but the pace is far too slow.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a shocking increase in the rates of IPV. For example, Malaysia saw a 44% jump in calls for help to specified hotlines. At the same time, Singapore saw a 33% increase. This data is, unfortunately, not surprising. During other crises, including other epidemics, violence against women tended to increase.

Melissa Alvarado and colleagues have seen compelling evidence that economic security, autonomy and empowerment are key factors in preventing IPV. Economists use a specific term to refer to this effect: when women have a ‘credible threat’ to leave, violence decreases. In this case, a ‘credible threat’ is when women can threaten to leave a relationship with the certainty that they have the money and resources to remain economically safe. There is a lot of data to support this effect, for example, a recent report shows that, in Bangladesh, women engaged in paid work are less likely to experience violence. In fact, globally, countries with a higher share of women in formal employment have lower rates of IPV.

She also agrees that there is not a lot of evidence focusing on the Indo Pacific region regarding cash transfers and IPV specifically. There is, however, an interesting example from a study in Bangladesh where they compared women who received cash transfers with or without an intensive behaviour change communication (BCC) on nutrition, versus a control group that did not receive cash transfer. Women who received a cash transfer with BCC on nutrition reported significantly less physical violence than the control groups. This remained true for six to eight months after the intervention. Those who received only cash transfer, without the BCC, saw a reduction in violence that went away immediately after the intervention. The evidence of the mechanisms behind these findings suggest that men perceived an increase in the social cost of being violent when women went through these programmes. This study shows the importance of complementary programming. Social protection measures need to be provided together with training work on a number of issues.

UN Women is always interested in finding out what systemic changes can be implemented to achieve the most positive outcome. Even though cash-based programmes are central elements of social protection, it is important to link them to national policies on economic development, employment, new businesses etc. Drawing from other initiatives to end violence against women globally, the speaker states that results are better when the focus is not only on women, but also on men who are part of their families and lives, when creating supportive structures.

Melissa Alvarado’s key recommendations are: first, that gender-based violence experts need to be involved when cash transfers are planned, implemented and evaluated. Second, that cash together with complementary programming are valuable to mitigate risk and produce stronger outcomes for women and families even more than just cash transfers alone.


Gender-sensitive social protection in Fiji

Fiji has high rates of IPV with 64% of women reporting incidences in their lifetime. FWRM, together with other organisations, has been working on mitigating these issues for decades. Recent data shows that, in Fiji cases of IPV, nine out of ten of the victims are women or girls. If we look deeper, we find that two out of three of these women have difficulty in reaching out to the formal justice sectors and the police because of cultural issues affecting how victims of violence are perceived. Among families and community circles, this subject is also not taken seriously. In a survey done by FWRM, eight out of ten women reported lack of financial means when facing the choice to report their partners. These findings become very significant when you look at the gender gap in labour force participation in Fiji, as well as the high levels of poverty in the country. The women surveyed by Nalini Singh’s team reported staying in a situation of violence due to the economic and social barriers standing in the way of formal justice.

FWRM recently mapped out some of the social protection schemes available for women and children in Fiji. Most schemes that targeted women specifically were focused on poverty alleviation and did not address violence against women. There is, however, one programme which is directly linked, where women who are applying for restraining orders can receive an allowance. Provision of free legal aid is also available to those who meet the criteria. More specified schemes are needed.

According to her, the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting itself as an opportunity for improvement. During the current crisis, there was a clear spike in the number of calls being made to the national helpline. However, an equivalent growth in measures of social protection being provided for women specifically was not seen. Instead, mitigation measures focused on the provision of loans and assistance to micro, small and medium scale businesses to try to stimulate the economy. Nalini Singh and colleagues strongly believe that social protection schemes should look beyond poverty alleviation and focus on wider ranging issues like providing support for people who are facing violence. It is also important to re-evaluate the amount of cash distributed in these schemes to make sure they are realistic to Fijian economy. Also, gender responsiveness must be included in all budgeting and planning stages to ensure social protection schemes can help to achieve gender equality. Proper targeting is also important to guarantee that the most vulnerable population receives help.


Learning from humanitarian practice

Since there is a clear increase in VAWG in crisis situations and given that COVID-19 is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our generation, it is safe to assume that many countries are dealing with this ‘invisible pandemic’. There are a number of lessons we can draw from the humanitarian sector when designing and implementing COVID-19 responses. One first important fact is that the challenge of coordination among different actors is immense: most organisations are competing for scarce funds and with the added difficulty of people running programmes working remotely, it can be very confusing.

It is also important to note that, currently, very little of the humanitarian funding goes towards specific programmes aiming to prevent VAWG. So, it is important that we don’t divert the small amount of funding directed to programmes that focus on women’s protection to provide cash transfers to prevent VAWG. The reality is that we need both to provide a holistic response. We need coordination between the VAWG actors and the social protection actors. We also need to make sure that the survivors of violence have easy access to social protection and that the programmes are inclusive of the women who are in need. For Lara Quarterman, social protection, specifically cash interventions, should be one of the specialised and essential services offered to survivors of violence, sitting alongside sexual and reproductive healthcare, psychosocial support etc. It should be one part of a holistic approach to the violence.

According to Lara Quarterman, the humanitarian sector teaches us that any provision of aid (i.e. food, cash transfers) can raise the risk of increasing VAWG especially sexual exploitation and abuse. When people with power and influence can act without accountability, these kinds of abuse often happen. While there have been efforts to improve accountability in the humanitarian sphere, as well as efforts to improve interagency responses to sexual abuse, this remains an issue.

As we start to implement gender sensitivity to our cash intervention programmes, Lara Quarterman recommends that we keep a few important things in mind. One is that cash alone will not be enough to prevent VAWG in a crisis. This type of violence is perpetrated by gender inequality and social norms. Therefore, although cash distribution could work to reduce inequality, it should be paired with longer term programmes aimed at shifting harmful attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls in society. Also, cash programmes should be coordinated with specialised services, as some of the other speakers have mentioned. It is extremely important that those implementing cash programmes aimed at reducing VAWG have the support of technical specialists that work with gender issues to ensure that any unnecessary harm is avoided. The final consideration is that it is crucial to continually assess the possible harm in cash-based programmes. This is not unique to cash; this is something we should do with all humanitarian programming. Broadly speaking, cash interventions and other social protection programmes should be reducing the risk of exposure to VAWG as a minimum standard. To do this we need to identify what these risks are, work together with women and girls to come up with mitigation strategies, monitor and make adjustments as needed.

The discussion ended with an interesting Q&A section, which you can find here.


This was the twenty-seventh webinar of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IG, GIZ 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.

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
Social Protection Topics: 
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Programme design and implementation
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disasters and crisis
    • Humanitarian crisis
  • Gender
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • East Asia & Pacific
The views presented here are the author's and not's