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International Women’s Human Rights: COVID-19’s impact on domestic violence and reproductive rights

April 20, 2020

Alyssa Cannizzaro L’21 and Eduarda Lague L’21, two students in Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis’ International Women’s Human Rights class, share their insights from their research papers on COVID-19’s impact on two key issues: reproductive healthcare and domestic violence.

Alyssa Cannizzaro L’21 and Eduarda Lague L’21, two students in Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis’ International Women’s Human Rights class, share their insights from their research papers on COVID-19’s impact on two key issues: reproductive healthcare and domestic violence.

The International Women’s Human Rights course at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School led by Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis inspires and analyzes laws, policies, and social movements across the world from a gender perspective in order to address women’s rights challenges. Currently, our class has endured strategizing and problematizing another great challenge to women’s rights – the COVID-19 pandemic.

This pandemic will impact women’s rights and other intersectionalities including people with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, indigenous populations, the LGBT+ community, migrant workers, prison populations, young girls and children, and lower income population. Understanding the role of women during this pandemic will help shape future policy and sustainable development solutions to provide a legal framework grounded in an understanding of forms of discrimination and gender bias.

For their final papers, Alyssa Cannizzaro and Eduarda Lague address issues that women are confronted with during this pandemic: access to their reproductive rights and justice and domestic violence. The final work product will be presented to United Nations officials calling for an expansive reading of international treaties to amend national domestic violence laws and offer a gender-based perspective to COVID-19 relief packages. And, additionally, access to abortion and the full scope of reproductive care must be considered essential healthcare that should continue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic violence

It is well established that violence against women deprives women of human rights. Violence encompasses sexual abuse, including marital rape and unwanted pregnancies, economic abuse, and psychological abuse. These acts of violence see surges during times of crises and instability. The spike in violence against women during COVID-19 unmasks the grim reality of threats to women’s security during times of national and global crisis.

Women, and others, are at higher risk of facing domestic violence due to lockdowns. For the International Women’s Human Rights class, Eduarda’s paper analyzes the surges of domestic violence during COVID-19 and government reactions. The paper ultimately calls for countries to amend their domestic laws to ensure a legal framework that provides additional protection during times of emergencies and disasters as called upon when reading international treaties and standards such as U.N. Resolution 1325 and the CEDAW expansively.

The United Nations Security Council and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee have implemented recommendations and resolutions to combat gender-based violence during all times, including disasters and conflict. CEDAW’s Recommendation 19 advises that countries have a responsibility to take “appropriate and effective measures to overcome all forms of gender-based violence, whether by public of private act.”

The article focuses on understanding these international treaties to ensure protection and prevention of gender-based violence not only during war and conflict but during emergencies, including global pandemics. This means that countries must fulfill their international obligation to protect women during a continuum of peace, conflict, and emergencies, such as this global crisis.

Associate Dean de Silva de Alwis inspires us to look across regions and cultures. Therefore, the paper looks at government responses to COVID-19 from across the world and domestic violence laws from countries such as the United States, Italy, China, and Ghana. While governments have acknowledged the potential spike in domestic violence, their responses and relief packages fall short of providing an adequate gender perspective to ensure women’s security.

Referring to the international instruments mentioned, my paper calls on countries to amend their domestic laws and relief packages to reflect the established international norms that women deserve additional codified protection in times of emergencies. This means laws must comply with the CEDAW and pillars of U.N. Resolution 1325 to ensure emergency preparedness plans and increased funding to address violence against women during crises, such as pandemics.

Therefore, domestic violence laws should have amended provisions to provide emergency relief funding for survivors, additional funding and resources for women from marginalized and rural communities, transitional housing and vouchers; ensure hotlines and grassroot workers can continue to have financial support and operate at a heightened capacity; and assist with transitions of psychological and awareness services to online access.

Any natural disaster or relief packages must include a gender perspective that addresses domestic violence and the position women are in during global crises, such as pandemics. There is not one solution that fits all. Lower income women, rural women, and women of different migrant statuses will disproportionately be affected by this pandemic. Governments have a responsibility to provide adequate prevention and prevention in their legislations to reflect a gender perspective during emergencies.

Reproductive rights

As the world is upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, one fundamental aspect of women’s rights has been impacted: reproductive rights. Alyssa’s paper analyzes how COVID-19 has impacted abortion access and the full scope of reproductive healthcare in several countries and looks at lessons learned from past global epidemics.

Access to healthcare, including reproductive health, is enshrined as a basic international human right in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW’s Recommendation 24 requires countries to “eliminate discrimination against women in their access to health-care services throughout the life cycle, particularly in the areas of family planning, pregnancy and confinement and during the post-natal period.”

As the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states, reproductive health is related to multiple human rights — the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination — and, as such, countries have obligations to respect, protect and fulfill rights related to women’s reproductive health.

In the United States, several states including Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma have attempted to restrict abortion access during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to conserve medical supplies for frontline workers in hospitals, legislators in these states have argued that abortions, as “non-essential” medical procedures, should be suspended indefinitely. Injunctions have been granted in several states so that abortion clinics have remained in operation, but in Texas, the ban on most abortions has been in place since March 22.

In Italy’s most-impacted region, Lombardy, hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients have stopped their abortion services. England, Scotland, and Wales have considerably expanded abortion access during the pandemic, making the abortion pill more readily accessible through telemedicine. However, in Northern Ireland, where laws granting more abortion access went into effect only on March 31, such telemedical abortions are not available.

By examining the responses of national governments and international human rights governing bodies to past global epidemics, the paper draws historical parallels to best advocate for the protection of reproductive healthcare in the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Zika virus, which is known to cause birth defects, was concentrated in Latin America. Many Latin American countries have strict laws in place which allow abortion only in limited circumstances. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights called for the repeal of such laws and called for countries to provide women with the information, support and services so that women can determine whether and when they become pregnant.

In the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which is still ongoing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, women have faced a higher risk of infection. This can be attributed to the fact that women, as traditional caretakers for the sick, are often at increased risk of exposure. One strategy to help stop the spread of the virus was training for midwives on precautions to take when tending to mothers and newborns.

During humanitarian emergencies, reproductive health needs can be overlooked, with devastating consequences. The paper will conclude that the full scope of reproductive healthcare, including abortions, contraception, prenatal care, and childbirth, must be continued during the current pandemic, as such services are time-sensitive and essential to women’s human rights.