Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Violence against Indigenous Women and Indigenous People Worldwide

UN Photo #841026 | Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), holds a virtual briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in Geneva, Switzerland | 15 April, 2020


On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), a global health agency, declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. WHO defines a pandemic as a global spread of a new disease.

Cancellations, Suspensions, and Rescheduled Meetings

As the coronavirus spread throughout the world, and even before the WHO’s declaration, the United Nations (UN) and Organization of American States (OAS) began curtailing their international human rights meetings  ̶  meetings that have served for decades as key spaces to advocate for indigenous peoples and indigenous women’s rights.

The UN Secretary-General recommended to Member States in February that delegations and other stakeholders refrain from travelling to any UN Headquarters. The UN then suspended its 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council (Feb. 24 – Mar. 20, 2020), telling delegations not to travel to Geneva, Switzerland.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women suspended indefinitely its 64th Session (Mar. 9-20, 2020) to be held in New York though it opened briefly for a procedural session adopting a political statement and other resolutions.

The UN also indefinitely postponed the 19th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (April 13-24, 2020) to be held in New York. The postponement resulted in the cancellation of all side events. The Indian Law Resource Center, Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and National Congress of American Indians had been approved to carry out a side event during the session on the movement to eliminate violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women.

As of the time this posting, the UN has placed a hold on the 13th Session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (June 8-12, 2020) scheduled for Geneva, recommending that travel arrangements not be made.

Also postponed is the Bonn UN Climate Change Conference, which is now scheduled for October 4-12, 2020. Pre-sessional meetings are set for September 28-October 3, 2020.

There is no word yet whether the UN will go forward with its 44th (June 15-July 3, 2020) and 45th (Sept. 14-Oct. 2) Sessions of the Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva.

UN and OAS Statements on COVID-19 and Violence Against Women

Addressing Gender-Based Violence Must be a Key Part of All National COVID-19 Response Plans

The UN continues to recognize that domestic violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations existing worldwide. It is urging immediate actions to prevent and address the surge in violence resulting from the pandemic. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on countries on April 6th to address the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls associated with government-imposed lockdowns. The Secretary-General noted that “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest:  in their own homes.”  Secretary-General Guterres urged governments to prevent and redress violence against women as a key part of their national COVID-19 response plans, outlining the following domestic violence recommendations to help improve the situation:

  • Increase investment in online services and civil society organizations,
  • Make sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers,
  • Set up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries,
  • Declare shelters as essential services,
  • Create safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers,
  • Avoid releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form,
  • Scale up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys. 

Growing Shadow Pandemic of Violence against Women and Girls

The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, reported that “we see a shadow pandemic growing of violence against women.” Mlambo-Ngcuka related that with 4 billion people sheltering at home from COVID-19 and more than 90 countries in lockdown, reports of domestic violence are rising and demands for emergency shelter are heightened across the world, including the United States. This is happening all at a time when health services are stretched thin and domestic violence shelters are full. Mlambo-Ngcuka said these limitations “fuel impunity for the perpetrators,” and the situation creates “a perfect storm for . . . violent behavior behind closed doors.”  She also called on every country with specific funding to consider women’s helplines and shelters as essential services and to use broad efforts to increase awareness about their availability. The surge in violence also needs urgent “measures embedded in economic support and stimulus packages that meet the gravity and scale of the challenge and reflect the needs of women who face multiple forms of discrimination.”

Statements by the UN and OAS on COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Communities Have Particular Vulnerability to the Global Pandemic

International human rights bodies recognize that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the global pandemic.

            United Nations

The UN has created a website on COVID-19 and indigenous peoples containing information and resources by the United Nations and WHO. Included on the site are statements by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and other UN-mandated bodies; statements and recommendations by indigenous peoples organizations; reports and public service announcements on COVID-19; and news articles about indigenous peoples and COVID-19 beginning in March 2020.

The Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Anne Nuorgam, reported the “pandemic presents a grave threat to indigenous peoples around the world” and called on “Member States and the international community to include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak.” She also issued a message urging Member States “to take immediate steps to ensure that indigenous peoples are informed, protected and prioritized during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On April 6, 2020, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples issued a statement emphasizing that indigenous peoples will suffer the effects of the coronavirus disproportionately and in different ways. The Expert Mechanism urged early action in the crisis stating that:

We call on all States to fulfil their human rights obligations, guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to protect the health and lives of indigenous peoples. In following WHO advice, we urge you to ensure that indigenous peoples become your partners in this endeavour, and that you provide culturally acceptable healthcare, as well as food or other humanitarian relief, when necessary, and without discrimination. States should acknowledge and accommodate the cultural, spiritual, and religious rights and responsibilities of indigenous peoples when considering measures to respond to the virus. As with the adoption of any measures that may affect indigenous peoples, their free, prior and informed consent, grounded in the right to self-determination, should be sought.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) also published a statement titled “Indigenous Peoples & the COVID-19 Pandemic: Considerations.” Observing that indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women and girls, are often disproportionately affected by epidemics, DESA emphasizes that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “establishes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples” and recommends key considerations for governments and representative institutions and for UN entities, private sector, and nongovernmental organizations.

            Organization of American States

The OAS General Secretariat issued a press release asking member countries to pay special attention to indigenous populations during this global health crisis. The General Secretariat urges local, regional, and national authorities in member countries to protect the health and well-being of indigenous peoples using an intercultural approach, as established by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the OAS. The General Secretariat also recommends that member states use specific policies and programs to sustain indigenous communities’ economies as way to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.

On April 7, 2020, the OAS published a “Practical Guide to Inclusive Rights-Focused Responses to COVID-19 in the Americas.” It is currently available in Spanish, but an English version is expected to follow soon. The guide is intended to support member states in responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic and to offer tools for responding to the circumstances of particular vulnerable groups. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro cautioned that the ability to survive the pandemic is less likely for those in situations of poverty and extreme poverty and for groups historically discriminated against like women and indigenous peoples. Accordingly, the OAS and its guide intends “that the member states must place emphasis on guaranteeing the right to health of these groups, using objective and reasonable criteria of distinction, based on the equalization of opportunities to bridge the inequality gap, and avoid arbitrary differences in treatment.”