* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The restrictions put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19 have, unintentionally, created serious barriers to reaching people in situations of trafficking or violence and bringing them to safety
By David Westlake, CEO of International Justice Mission UK.
As the world grapples with the worst health crisis in living memory, a parallel - often hidden - pandemic has emerged in its wake: a pandemic of violence.
COVID-19 lockdowns and the associated school closures, poverty and joblessness have increased risks of violence around the world, especially for women and girls. At this critical moment when global governments and civil society actors make plans to respond and rebuild, it is essential that we prioritise safety and protection for people vulnerable to violence.
COVID-19 disruptions have fed into the hands of abusers and traffickers.
"A lot of companies have been recruiting child labourers and young people to work ... by giving them false promises," explains an IJM field office staff member.
During the pandemic, local authorities in South Asia supported by International Justice Mission (IJM) brought to safety 35 teenage girls and three young women from forced labour in a spinning mill. With their families struggling, the women and girls took up a job offer from factory owners who promised steady employment until schools reopened. Instead, they were trapped in the factory and forced to work 14-hour days.
While COVID-19 has spread devastation across the world, violence has been the shadow pandemic following behind.
Stay-at-home orders left women and children trapped at home with their abusers, living with the daily threat of domestic violence. School closures made children more at-risk of trafficking and forced child labour. We have seen spikes in online sexual exploitation of children as sex offenders in places like the UK have been spending more time at home and online, and children in places like the Philippines have been locked in with their traffickers.
Further still, an estimated 150 million more people were expected to fall into extreme poverty in 202o alone, leaving them vulnerable to unscrupulous traffickers taking advantage of people desperately needing to make an income.
Countering modern slavery and violence must therefore be at the forefront of government efforts domestically and internationally. In order to build back better, we must ensure that protection for people at risk of violence is prioritised.
The pandemic has exposed the lack of systemic protection for victims and has placed criminal justice systems under additional stress. As IJM’s teams continued to operate across the world, we saw how harmful the pandemic has been for victims and survivors of violence. Alice Muhairwe, Director of Casework for IJM Uganda, saw this firsthand.
“COVID-19 has led to a spike in violence and exposed the pre-existing daily abuse that many women and girls face. Worse still, when essential services were restricted, making them unreachable … ensuring protection and securing justice became near unattainable.”
Similarly, we have seen reductions in access to justice and trauma-informed support for survivors. As noted by Shawn Kohl, IJM’s Director for Central and Eastern Europe.
“In our casework, we have seen the pandemic push services further out of the reach of survivors. Basic services, such as psychosocial support, have moved online, and victim and witness support has been challenging.”
To discuss these barriers and how we may overcome them, on Wednesday IJM convened a roundtable chaired by Thomson Reuters Foundation with an expert panel to explore what next steps are needed to strengthen protections for the most vulnerable in the recovery from COVID-19. Panelist Sophie Otiende, Regional Operations Manager with Liberty Shared and survivor advocate, highlighted that,
“A collective response is needed. Whether we like it or not, we are sharing this world together and, if we want to survive, we have to think about how we build our resilience together. My hope is that, as we move forward, we think about people who are going through slavery and violence.”
Naitore Nyamu from Physicians for Human Rights stressed that, “Governments should continue adopting and incorporating a human rights approach in their response to COVID-19.”
As the world moves towards a global recovery from COVID-19, the UK has an opportunity to play a principal role in strengthening protections for the most vulnerable. The UK should lead collaborative efforts in international forums, such as the G7, to continue to highlight the importance of tackling violence.
Further, the UK must direct aid towards promoting protection. Investment in criminal justice systems, such as through practical support and mentorship to law enforcement, should be increased to effectively secure justice and reduce violence.
Crucially, survivors need to be central to leading and shaping efforts to stop violence, especially in programme design. Victoria Nyanjura, Global Survivor Network Leader and founder of Women in Action for Women, highlights the importance of survivor inclusion in programming and policy making.
“As a survivor who works with survivors of violence, I believe immediate crisis care programmes must be informed and shaped by the survivors who use them. This will ensure that the needs of the survivors are being met and no additional harm is occurring during this delicate time.”
Out of crisis, can come opportunity. Now is the time for transformative action to empower and equip criminal justice systems around the world to stop violence. By working together to build back safer, we can see cultures of impunity ended and greater protection for people most vulnerable to violence and slavery. We have an opportunity to choose a better, safer and fairer future for all.