As the world marks this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we do so acutely aware that 2020 has been like no other year. According to the United Nations (UN) about 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. Recent lockdowns that countries enforced to curtail the spread of Covid-19 have undoubtedly contributed to this astounding figure as families retreated behind closed doors where violence often occurs away from witnesses. Women and girls were locked up with abusive partners, family members and relatives – the majority of whom are male. The figure could also be much higher, as it is common cause that many victims of gender-based violence do not report abuse or seek help, mainly because survivors have lost faith in the criminal justice system.
Various forms of violence including physical violence, emotional, sexual and economic violence as well as psychological violence have seen an increase during lockdown periods.
- In Namibia, the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture confirmed that a total of 3 323 girls were impregnated during the lockdown period.
- In many countries, like Kenya for example, that have a high prevalence of harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), experienced a surge in the practice as schoolgirls stayed home.
- Teenage pregnancies also surged up in Kenya with a local newspaper reporting that approximately 20, 825 girls aged between 10 – 14 years were pregnant or gave birth during the lockdown and an additional 24, 106 aged between 15 – 19 years became mothers or were pregnant since the lockdown began.
- Nigeria experienced an upsurge in rape cases nationwide, with over 3 600 cases reported within a short period of the lockdown.
- A yet to be published report conducted by Sonke Gender Justice and MenEngage Africa Alliance on the Impact of Covid-19 on gender-based violence found that the Covid-19 pandemic increased vulnerabilities among women and girls in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia, with an increase in cases of violence being recorded. Some of this violence was exacerbated by various changes around the Covid-19 lock down measures such as social distancing, movement restrictions, curfews, school closures and work from home measures among others. Many respondents also experienced mental health stress heightened by violence, fear of exposure to the pandemic and loss of basic resources for families. This was worsened by limited access to support and care services for victims of abuse, as well as limited access to essential sexual and reproductive health services and justice.
These are just a few of the exacerbated violations of the rights of women and girls that occurred on the continent during the Covid-19 lockdown.
These occurrences bring into sharp focus the important campaign of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence and they point to the need to strengthen efforts by all sectors – governments, civil society organisations, faith and traditional as well as community leaders, the business community and development and aid agencies – to recommit to the response to end the scourge of violence against women and children, particularly girls whom abusers often target.
MenEngage Africa Alliance joins the world to amplify the United Nations call for global action to bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence, focus on prevention, the collection of data that can improve life-saving services for women and girls, under the global theme: “Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”
As countries are still seething from effects of the Covid-19 onslaught, we call on governments to remember that gender-based violence is a serious pandemic alongside the Coronavirus and they cease diverting attention and resources from it as they address the impacts of Covid-19. We call on governments to:
- Afford adequate consideration to services that address violence against womxn and girls, including increased resources to support shelters, hotlines and online counselling to enhance psychosocial support. These essential services should be expanded and adapted to the crisis context to ensure survivors’ access to support.
- Send a strong message that impunity will not be tolerated. Law enforcement agencies, including the police and other justice officials must ensure that incidents of violence against women and girls receive high priority and care must be taken to address the manifestations of violence emerging in the context of COVID -19.
- Ensure that there is psychosocial support for women and girls affected by gender-based violence survivors.
- Take steps to create awareness amongst men and boys of the consequences of violent behaviour and the need to address it as well as ensure that there are repercussions where and when violence against women and girls is perpetrated.
The levels of tolerance for, and the normalisation of, gender-based violence must be uprooted at all levels of societies.
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