COVID-19 transforms gender-based violence response in Malaysia

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I never expected Malaysia or the world to be thrown into such a unique and stressful situation as the COVID-19 pandemic. What a shock for us all both professionally and personally.

The standard programming for UNICEF Malaysia is mostly: upstream work with the government, advocacy with civil society and research with academic institutes. But, when the COVID-19 lockdown started in early March and families were stuck at home, everything started to change.

Within the first week of the national lockdown, we began hearing from women’s organizations about concerns related to gender-based violence (GBV). Calls to domestic violence hotlines went quiet. Everyone knew this was not something to celebrate.

Violence was most likely still occurring, but women and girls were cut off from their normal communication channels, such as their trusted friends, family members and community organizations, making safe communications difficult. In-person support services were also halted.

A leading civil society organization reported a 44 per cent increase in calls [to domestic violence hotlines] within the first month of the lockdown.

WhatsApp and Facebook messaging services were quickly started, and the calls started to increase. Women’s Aid Organisation, a leading civil society organization in the country, reported a 44 per cent increase in calls within the first month of the lockdown.

We quickly realized that some of our implementing partners might be a family’s only link to the outside world during lockdown, increasing the likelihood that disclosures of violence could be made to professionals not trained to respond to GBV.

Thus, UNICEF Malaysia needed to adapt our standard programming, as well as our new COVID-19 emergency programming, to mitigate the risks of GBV, and to ensure that we (and our implementing partners) knew how to appropriately refer disclosures.

The Inter Agency Standing Committee GBV “Pocket Guide” and app to train first responders on how to handle disclosure of GBV was just the tool to support our partners, however we had never implemented this training or tool in Malaysia.

At first, we decided to send the tool to our partners and recommended they watch a 45-minute training video. While this helped explain to people how to adapt and respond to GBV, we quickly learned that many of our implementing partners’ staff would not feel confident in their skills if the tools were only available in English. The resources required translation into Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin languages.

As a result, we are now translating the training and GBV Pocket Guide resources with the United Nations Country Team Gender Results Group for Malaysia and working with other UN agencies to support the cross-referencing of translations and dissemination of the guide. We are also working closely with a leading Malaysian women-led organization to develop a localized programme of online GBV risk mitigation and referral training, which we plan to co-deliver to all UNICEF staff and International Professionals too.

While we did not have a UNICEF programme on gender-based violence in Malaysia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are on our way towards developing a comprehensive gender-integrated approach to our programming within the context of this crisis.

If faced with a similar challenge in future, we’re now able to mitigate GBV risks and refer partners to resources that are in local languages. This is truly a testament of our commitment to gender-integrated work.

This story is part of a series of field diaries from UNICEF staff focused on reimagining and delivering a gender equitable world, including living out the organization’s Five Actions for Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Response.

Zoë Gan is Disability Specialist and Gender Focal Point, UNICEF Malaysia.

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