Stigma, discrimination and gender-based violence in the COVID-19 pandemic: young key populations in Asia and the Pacific

Posted on Aug 18, 2020

In Asia and the Pacific, young key populations experience gender-based violence (GBV) and multiple, intersecting discrimination on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, HIV status, economic status, geographical status, religion, migration status, disability, and sexual orientation and gender identity, expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).

Stigma, discrimination and GBV aggravate HIV and other health threats faced by young key populations. They also obstruct YKP from accessing vital information and the services they need, including health, social protection and legal services. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people represent some of the most marginalized populations in Asia and the Pacific. Ignorance, intolerance and hatred based on prejudices continue to result in their social exclusion, violations of their rights, and intolerable levels of violence against them.

Stigma and discrimination based on perceived and self-identified SOGIESC emerge from gender inequalities and harmful gender norms.[1] Examples include lack of official gender recognition when individuals are perceived to deviate from gender norms because their gender identity or expression does not coincide with their sex assigned at birth.[2]Unequal power dynamics, harmful gender norms and social constructs are root causes of violence against women and girls. Adolescent girls, young women, women from ethnic and other minorities, sex workers, transgender women, women who use drugs and women with disabilities face a higher risk of various forms of violence.[3]

Legal systems in many countries in the region are falling short of protecting the people that the HIV response is aiming to reach. Criminalization of same-sex relations, sex work and drug use give licence to discrimination, harassment and violence, while also isolating YKPs and hindering them from accessing vital services. Sixteen countries in the region criminalize consensual same-sex relations between adults.[4]Prohibitive laws and policies against YKPs increase their vulnerability to HIV, discourage health-seeking behaviour and perpetuate barriers to key health services.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating existing gender inequalities and vulnerabilities that contribute to stigma, discrimination and GBV. Extended confinement measures and restrictions on movement in most countries across the globe, compounded by economic and social stresses brought on by the pandemic, have coincided with reports of increased numbers of people from key populations and women facing abuse.[5]

Men who have sex with men have been harassed and targeted in the spread of COVID-19 in some countries, including the Philippines and the Republic of Korea[6]. India reported double the usual number of cases of domestic abuse in the first week of nationwide movement restrictions, according to the country’s National Commission for Women.[7]

To better understand the challenges faced by YKPs during the pandemic in Asia and the Pacific, the Interagency Task Team (IATT) on YKPs carried out a regional survey.

Gender-based violence

Nineteen per cent of the survey respondents have faced gender-based violence during the pandemic. Among the respondents who identified as LGBTI individuals, around 40% have faced violence. This highlights the need to address all forms of violence facing young key populations by strengthening support systems and mechanisms for reporting and responding to violence, including through public awareness campaigns, hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, legal aid, and mental health support.

Stigma and discrimination

One in two respondents who identified as LGBTI individuals have faced stigma and discrimination during the pandemic. There is an urgent need for reform, protective, non-discriminatory policies, training and awareness-raising to improve understanding of sexuality and gender equality and put an end to discrimination.

Violence, stigma and discrimination

Around one in three of all respondents (31%) experienced stigma, discrimination or GBV. This percentage was significantly higher among the respondents who identified as members of the transgender community.

Specific strategies and measures should be developed to mitigate and address stigma, discrimination and GBV and avoid escalation, especially during the pandemic. The IATT has drawn up recommendations to guide the response to COVID-19 based on lessons learned from the HIV response.

A primary lesson is that stigma, discrimination and all forms of violence have negative impacts on individual health and on public health outcomes in general. The HIV response has also shown that communities fill critical gaps, playing an important role in addressing stigma, discrimination and GBV. Communities, including youth-led organizations, have the capacity to support isolated and marginalized young key populations. They are influential in changing the attitudes of their community and the wider public while also promoting social change through outreach campaigns.


  • Address the structural drivers of stigma, discrimination and all forms of violence against YKPs and ensure COVID-19 responses do not reproduce or perpetuate discriminatory practices.
  • Engage and include YKPs in the planning, design and implementation of all initiatives to end all forms of violence, stigma and discrimination, particularly as part of the emergency response to the pandemic.
  • Ensure the provision of accurate and supportive care and messages to respond to all forms of violence that are inclusive of and target the needs of YKPs.
  • Establish synergies and integration of HIV, sexual and reproductive health and rights, mental health and psychosocial support services in the context of COVID-19 and health emergencies. Strengthen linkages with other services, including education, social protection, employment and access to justice.
  • Strengthen monitoring and redress mechanisms to monitor, document and refer cases of violence, stigma and discrimination against YKPs for legal and alternative redress.
  • Adopt an intersectional approach that acknowledges and responds to the diversity and diverse needs within communities of YKPs.
  • Strengthen the multisectoral response towards gender-based violence by engaging different stakeholders, including civil society organizations, service providers, legal authorities and media to develop a holistic approach to GBV and stigma and discrimination amid the pandemic.

[1] Addressing a blind spot in the response to HIV: reaching out to men and boys. Geneva: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS; 2018.

[2] Legal gender recognition: a multi-country legal and policy review in Asia. Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme and Asia Pacific Transgender Network; 2017.

[3] Global AIDS update 2020. Geneva: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.


[5] Global AIDS update 2020. Geneva: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

[6]  Global AIDS update 2020. Geneva: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

[7] Global AIDS update 2020. Geneva: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.