Why taking a survivor-centred approach to police services is important in a global pandemic

A new global Police Handbook aims to address some of the most difficult challenges that survivors of violence face when accessing police and justice sector services around the world.


Today, UN Women, in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the International Association of Women Police (IAWP) launched a new Handbook on Gender-Responsive Police Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence. The handbook provides practical, peer-to-peer guidance for police to enable an effective and gender-sensitive response to violence against women and girls and complements existing global and country-specific training materials for law enforcement.

The handbook on gender-responsive police services for women and girls subject to violence

Less than 1 in 10 women who seek help after experiencing violence turn to the police, and only a minority of cases of violence are ever formally reported to the police, with even fewer cases resulting in convictions.

In the past 12 months, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, intimate partner violence reports have risen sharply across the globe, with calls to helplines increasing five-fold in some countries. Women and girls are now often ‘locked down’ with their abusers, cut off from family and friends, and police and justice services are under pressure to ensure women and girls can access support, especially when traditional pathways have been shut down due to restrictions or social distancing measures.

Police have also had to shift their focus to enforcing quarantines and increasingly severe ‘stay at home’ measures, and many courts have had to close completely, resulting in postponed hearings and a backlog of cases. With so many police resources needed to ensure public health measures are followed, protection orders may not have been enforced.

“We know that positive initial contact with police is crucial for survivors of violence as they navigate complex justice systems. Women in this situation need to be treated with respect and know that their experience is being taken seriously and promptly from the moment they reach out. And they need to have confidence that their attackers are not going to escape justice,” explains Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

“In response to the UN Secretary-General’s call to governments last year to end all violence everywhere, ‘from war zones to peoples’ homes’, 65 countries have strengthened police and judicial responses to ensure women’s access to justice, address lack of punishment of perpetrators and protect women during COVID-19. But, as the pandemic drags on, a lack of accountability for perpetrators is becoming further entrenched in police and judicial responses.

The Handbook provides more in-depth guidance on areas such as police responses during crises like COVID-19; gender-responsive police investigations (including being more perpetrator-focused); prevention of violence against women and girls; survivor-centred approaches; promoting positive masculinities and emerging issues, like online violence and exploitation.

UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly welcomed UN Women's leadership in developing this much-needed tool to protect victims and improve access to justice for women and girls subject to violence: "The Handbook will further reinforce the technical assistance UNODC and other UN partners provide on the ground to build police capacities and strengthen reforms that are underway in many countries. Our combined efforts can support police and institutions of justice to be more responsive to women and girls, especially those who are most marginalized and at greater risk of violence."

IAWP President Deborah Friedl welcomes this innovative handbook, "By targeting police middle managers, those in charge of policing districts or departments, the handbook will provide them with both valuable and relevant guidance, knowledge and awareness so they can own the problem of violence against women and girls, to enable and empower their front-line staff to deliver a truly victim-focused response to reports of such crimes”.

A holistic approach to addressing violence against women and girls is a key component of the Generation Equality Forum and its Action Coalition on Gender-based Violence. The Action Coalition will bring together advocates from every sector of society to foster a global conversation for urgent action. Only when all essential services sectors – police and justice, health and social services – work together to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable can there be lasting and systematic change.

The Handbook will be rolled out in pilot countries to measure progress and impact with efforts focused on building trust between the police and local communities, improving collaboration with other service providers, and supporting police middle managers to deliver survivor-centered approaches, such as placing the obligation on perpetrators to leave the home, not victims and survivors.

You can find the Handbook in full here and follow the links for more information on UN Women’s work on Essential Services and UNODC’s work on police and justice responses to gender-based violence against women.