SEXUAL and gender-based violence is a prevalent global problem. According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), 35% of women worldwide have experienced this in one way or another.
It’s a statistic that can increase by up to 80% in times of crisis, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In the Philippines, amid the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that online sexual exploitation of children has increased to 264%.
Statistics from the Philippine National Police (PNP), however, showed a decrease in reported cases of abuse during the same period. The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) attributes this to ‘limited mobility’–making it more difficult to reach authorities and report forms of abuse.
“The reality is that men and women are affected differently when it comes to dealing with outbreaks and the impact of imposed lockdowns,” said Ma. Sheila Estabillo, Project Manager for Cyber Safe Spaces Project from Plan International, a non-government organization that advocates equal rights for children and women.
In response to this alarming reality, leading provider of customer experience (CX) and digital IT solutions, TELUS International Philippines (TIP) partnered with Plan International to set up virtual learning sessions for members of their team to educate them on issues related to gender-based violence and online sexual exploitation of children.
“Advocating for fairness and equality is deeply ingrained in our culture. It’s difficult to turn a blind eye to this alarming reality. Within our community of 17,000, someone is a mother, a daughter, a sister, has a child, and we have a responsibility to the community where we live to bring awareness to this issue,” said Phoebe Carrera, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager from TIP.
Plan International defines gender-based violence to be “all forms of violence done motivated by gender identity and social position; usually because of inequality on gender roles and responsibilities or what a society believes it means to be a proper ‘woman’ or ‘man’.” Meanwhile, online sexual exploitation is the “use of the internet or any information and communication technology to exploit a child through sexually explicit activities.”
Protecting women and children through an informed community
Today, given the alarming rise in sexual and gender-based violence amid community lockdown, communities have a bigger role to play, not only to curb the transmission of COVID-19 but also to ensure the safety and security of vulnerable women and children. For victims of abuse, their homes are no longer safe spaces.
“Apart from the physical harm and trauma, we can respond better if we have a deeper understanding of these issues by breaking down its causes and impact related to gender, age, disability, and other vulnerabilities that play in people’s experiences of the pandemic” said Mona Mariano, Country Gender Specialist from Plan International.
Through the learning session organized by TELUS International Philippines and Plan International, team members gain a wider perspective on the impact of a lockdown on these statistics.
“The pandemic has resulted in the loss of lives, employment, displacement, and hunger. Abuse and violence at home, where you should be safe, has a long-term and irreversible impact. We believe that spreading information on this important topic can help reduce this, starting with our team members,” said Carrera.
Some of the predisposing factors on gender-based violence and online child exploitation include:
Lack of access to education or information – When every bit of information can save lives, the lockdown has suspended reopening of classes. Not every home is equipped with access to sources of information like the internet, TV, radio, or newspaper.
Hunger and unemployment – The loss of livelihood, especially those who depend on daily wages, severely impact impoverished families. They are unable to provide basic needs, like food, which can be attributed to poor decision making leading to violence and abuse.
Isolation and limited mobility – The lockdown enforces that people stay at home as much as possible. Vulnerable women and children are not able to reach out to report or seek help outside of their homes. Staying in one place with the aggressor leads to repeated instances of violence and abuse.
Calling on team members to be proactive
Understanding these factors arms gender-empowering groups at TIP such as Connections Women’s Network, TIP’s resource group for women, and Spectrum Philippines, their dedicated LGBTQIA+ resource group, to be more vigilant and more proactive.
“Understanding the complexities of the issues helps us to develop more effective community initiatives that target the root cause so we can prevent abuse from happening and help the most vulnerable people,” said Pia Gajasan, TIP Communications Manager and member of Connections Women’s Network.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way TIP works, in many ways. With some team members only now returning to office-based work and having spent months working from home, TIP believes that its team members are more attuned to the needs of their respective communities.
“Education is the starting point of action. What we learn guides us to shape our role as protector, providing safety and security, not just of our own team members but to vulnerable members of the communities that we serve. Abuse and violence are never justifiable, whatever the circumstances, and we would like to do our share to prevent it from happening,” said Gajasan.