Feature story

Tackling gender inequalities and gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia and the Pacific

08 March 2021

“It was hard for us before COVID-19, but it has become even harder now,” said Ayu Oktariani, the National Coordinator of the Indonesia Positive Network of Women Living with HIV (IPPI). For more than 10 years, she has been working with women and adolescents living with HIV who have been subjected to domestic violence in Indonesia, providing them with psychosocial support and counselling. Since the first COVID-19 outbreak, she has seen increased requests for help, as violence has escalated alarmingly.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence was already one of the most significant human rights violations, but the pandemic has made a challenging situation even worse. Confinement is increasing the stress caused by security, health and money worries and is increasing the isolation of women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them.

According to a survey conducted by the International Community of Women Living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific (ICWAP) with support from the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific, in June 2020 almost 30% of the respondents experienced some form of gender-based violence, including stigma and discrimination. In addition, more than 80% reported a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception.

In Indonesia, a report released by the National Commission on Violence against Women shows that the number of reported cases of violence against women living with HIV has significantly increased during the pandemic. “A few months ago, I was contacted by a woman living in a rural area, who was forced by her husband to have regular unprotected sex. She was unable to negotiate the use of condoms because of fear of violence,” said Ms Oktariani.

With other organizations in Indonesia, IPPI is developing a referral system that will guide women living with HIV who have been subjected to violence to women-led organization for legal advice and support. IPPI is also part of a national coalition that connects women and girls, including women living with HIV, to emergency services, including the police and justice and social services.

In Nepal, women living with HIV are faced with similar ordeals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sara Thapa Magar, the President of the National Federation of Women Living with HIV and AIDS (NFWLHA), Nepal, reflects on Lily’s (not her real name) story, a woman living with HIV who was beaten by her husband after she went to the local hospital to get refills of her antiretroviral therapy. The current circumstances, including limitations on access to helplines and disrupted public services, have made reporting of abuse and violence even harder.

NFWLHA has played a critical role in addressing these challenges by offering legal support to women like Lily subjected to domestic violence and providing relief packages to women and children living with HIV. “Despite these efforts, we are struggling to cope with the knock-on effects of the pandemic, and one of the main reasons is the lack of funds,” said Ms Magar. “Women-led organizations need to be continuously supported in our frontline role.”

Kousalya Periasamy, the founder of the Positive Women Network (PWN+), explains the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on the life of women living with HIV in India. “Many women and girls were afraid of going to the hospital to get their antiretroviral therapy refill and access general health services out of fear of COVID-19,” said Ms Periasamy. “Women living with HIV who had COVID-19 were not able to provide for and look after children if they had to be admitted into the hospital.” Given the need to communicate with local network partners and members, PWN+ established a WhatsApp group to ensure that women living with HIV had access to reliable information on HIV and COVID-19. PWN+ also mobilized support from different local organizations to donate food and supplies and handed out pamphlets containing HIV and COVID-19 information.

Sarah Feagan, a Board Member of ICWAP, works for a local agency in Australia, Living Positive Victoria (LPV). During the lockdown in Melbourne, “I worked to ensure women living with HIV remained connected and supported during COVID-19. Since I could not meet anyone in person, I kept in touch on the phone, linking them together via online workshops and other women living in similar areas to meet up without breaking the 5 km rule,” she said. She was able to offer financial support, food parcels and legal and emotional support thanks to LPV and other HIV organizations.

“On International Women’s Day, we commend all our sisters across Asia and the Pacific, who, like Ayu, Sara Thapa, Sarah and Kousalya, are establishing supportive mechanisms for women and girls living with HIV, even in the face of adversities,” said Sita Shahi, ICWAP Regional Coordinator.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific has joined hands with ICWAP to raise awareness about the needs and challenges of women living with HIV and to support the implementation of small local relief projects in Nepal, Malaysia and India. “COVID-19 is already testing us in ways most of us have never previously experienced. We must emerge renewed, with women living with HIV as a powerful force at the centre of the recovery,” said Eamonn Murphy, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific.