The impact of COVID-19 on gender-based violence in the Philippines: ‘One of the most insidious consequences of the pandemic’

The third in our series of INGSA inequalities case studies investigates how patterns of violence against women have changed during the Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdowns – and the efficacy of responses at both a national and local level

An early increase in reported GBV cases

One of the Philippines’ primary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the imposition of widespread lockdowns, euphemistically called ‘community quarantines’. Since the introduction of a general regional lockdown for the entire island of Luzon in March 2020, the government has enforced differing levels of restrictions on people’s mobility and economic activities by suspending public transport, requiring people to stay indoors, shutting down certain businesses, shifting to work- and study-from-home arrangements, declaring local curfews and setting up checkpoints. Only those with proper authorisation and identification, designated as Authorised Persons Outside Residence (APOR), could carry out personal errands or report for work as COVID-19 frontliners.

The first few weeks of the lockdown already saw an increase in reported cases of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly against women. In Quezon City, for example, the Women and Children’s Desk is reported to have processed at least 12 complaints per week during the first two weeks – more than twice the number they were receiving before the pandemic reached the Philippines. Overall, during the first four months of the lockdown (March to June 2020), some 4,260 cases of violence against women and children were reported to the Philippine National Police (PNP), of which 2,183 were committed against women.

While this upward trend changed when the PNP released data covering March to October 2020, the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW, the country’s primary policymaking and coordinating body on women and gender equality concerns) contended this may not have been the reality on the ground. The agency noted that the reporting of complaints may have been affected by ‘the restricted movement in the communities, suspension of public transportation, victims being locked down with their perpetrators, lack of communication channels, and lack of information on where/how to report’.

An independent regional study conducted by UN Women, UN Population Fund and an internet analytics company gave further credence to the PCW’s assertion. This study found that, between October 2019 and September 2020, there was an increase in online searches related to violence against women in the Philippines and seven other Asian countries – with searches relating to physical violence against women rising by 63% in the Philippines, and help-seeking queries increasing by 10%.

Interventions may have worsened gender inequalities

A rapid review of media reports between March 2020 to April 2021 shows that GBV cases were usually committed by intimate partners of the victims, with typical complaints including rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and economic abuse. A 2017 Philippine National Demographic and Health survey had previously indicated that one in four Filipino women aged 15-49 had experienced domestic violence at least once in their lives, and Gustavo González, UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, called GBV ‘one of the most insidious consequences of the pandemic’. Government interventions may have worsened the gender bias and gender inequalities that already existed in the country before the community lockdowns were imposed.

There were also reports that abusers pivoted towards online media at the height of the lockdown last year, before shifting back to street-level trafficking as community quarantine measures eased up again. Harder to track, online sexual exploitation is emblematic of the increased economic difficulties which continue to push vulnerable groups in dangerous situations. As many as 16 million Filipino women were already ‘economically insecure’ before the pandemic, according to the Center for Women’s Resources, a local NGO. Without guaranteed access to different forms of social protection to cushion the economic blow of COVID-19 on women, the Philippines’ lockdown experience has illustrated how exploitative avenues could easily expand online in times of crisis.

Equally disturbing are the reported GBV cases that took place outside the home environment. With travel restricted only to those with a ‘quarantine pass’, there were media stories of how some women were harassed and raped by official personnel in exchange for passage at borders – prompting the national police to conduct an administrative investigation while also urging victims to come to court to file criminal charges.

Policies to confront GBV

Even before COVID-19 struck, the Philippines did not lack policies to confront GBV. In the context of disasters, women’s rights to protection and security were already mandated and ensured by state policies, particularly through the Magna Carta of Women (enacted in 2009) and the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (2010).

During the pandemic, interventions by government agencies primarily focused on ensuring that the referral system for victim-survivors of GBV remained operational. For example, the Commission on Human Rights set up an online reporting platform, while the PCW and the Inter-Agency Council on Violence Against Women and their Children sustained referral services through email, social media and mobile calls. Directives were also given to local government units (LGUs) to ensure their Violence against Women and Children (VAWC) Desks continued to function as the first line of response for survivors.

A preliminary survey of LGUs by Castillo (2020) found that, in terms of interventions on the different gendered impacts of the pandemic, their responses to GBV were deemed the strongest aspect – including provision of medical, legal and psychosocial services for victim-survivors. The President of the Philippines’ latter reports to the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee, as part of the implementation of the national recovery programme, highlighted the government’s assistance to women, children and other vulnerable groups as well as the number of VAWC cases across the country.

However, national government bulletins on community quarantine made no mention of the increased risks of GBV as a consequence of community lockdowns. Likewise, guidelines and protocols on isolation, quarantine facilities and accommodations for frontline health workers did not specify provisions to ensure the safety of women in these facilities. In general, the gendered impacts of the pandemic are conspicuously absent from the government’s National Action Plan Against COVID-19.

The need to get a more complete picture

The Philippines’ experience in collecting evidence on GBV during the pandemic points to the need to triangulate government records with stories from the ground, in order to get a more complete picture of the situation and thus inform the design of appropriate policy interventions. While official police reports indicate a stark slowdown in reported complaints over the COVID-19 lockdown periods, the reality may have been quite different – and there is also the added challenge of preventing abuse against women outside the home and in cyberspace.

Documenting these forms of abuse has been challenging for the country’s government agencies, not to mention the impact on the victim-survivors themselves. There is a clear need to evaluate the performance of pre-pandemic referral and reporting mechanisms during COVID-19, in order to identify and address particular pandemic-related GBV issues. Ultimately, we must all seek to ensure that the welfare of women and girls does not fall victim to the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ in times of crisis and emergency.

Authors of this blog

Kristoffer Berse (National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines; University of the Philippines Resilience Institute); Pilar Preciousa P Berse (Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University); Michelle Castillo (Center for Local and Regional Governance, National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines); Micah Nazal (University of the Philippines Resilience Institute).