What must governments do to reduce gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic?
iolence against women is increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activists in Kenya, for example, report that calls regarding domestic violence increased by 34% in the first three weeks of the country’s imposed curfew. Similarly, in South Africa the gender-based violence call centre reported that the number of calls doubled during the first four days of lockdown.
This was sadly foreseen by many women’s rights activists – it is widely known that women and girls are more at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation during crises. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, rates of violence were higher due to economic insecurity and poverty-related stress, quarantines, increased exposure to exploitative relationships and reduced access to health services and first responders. It was also more challenging for women to escape abusive partners due to movement restrictions or closures of safe spaces.
Researchers estimate there will be at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence globally as a result of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Governments need to act urgently to prevent a parallel crisis. “The forces of violence against women and girls do not take a break during an emergency. They double down. The standard response from governments is to treat addressing gender-based violence as a luxury - something that can wait for when things are back to normal. This approach is worse for women and girls, worse for the crisis in the short term and worse for the recovery in the long term,” Chernor Bah, a girls’ rights activist in Sierra Leone, told the Africa Portal.
The UN Secretary General and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights have called for the prevention of violence against women to be a key part of COVID-19 response and recovery plans. This requires funding to be allocated for prevention and response services, such as national telephone advice lines. Medical care, sexual and reproductive health services, counselling, shelters and legal assistance should be considered an essential service. Governments need to be open to innovation to meet the growing need. For example, in some countries, vacant hotels and schools have been repurposed due to lack of shelters, and warning systems set up in supermarkets or pharmacies so women can safely report abuse.
Frontline workers need to be trained to identify cases of gender-based violence and where best to refer them. The police have a vital role to play. They should prioritise complaints of violence and adapt reporting systems so they are accessible. The police need to enforce lockdowns fairly, ensuring that women can leave to access emergency services, and respond proportionately to women in perceived violation of lockdown or curfew rules. Women are not just at risk of violence at home but also outside. As was the case during Ebola lockdowns, often women are arrested when trying to meet basic socioeconomic needs, such as going to buy water or challenges finding transport home after working in the informal economy.
As highlighted in a new report by UN Women and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), access to justice cannot wait and courts need to be supported to deliver services remotely and to prioritise urgent services for women, such as protection orders or child maintenance orders. Existing orders should be automatically extended. In Kenya, judges have started delivering judgments via video link. “We have learnt that technology is a sleeping giant in the dispensation of justice”, Justice Hannah Okwengu told the Association of Women Judges.
Civil society groups have already been mobilising and finding ways to adapt their services. Organisations such as Rape Crisis in Cape Town extended their 24-hour advice lines which are provided via phone and WhatsApp. AdvocAid in Sierra Leone is providing legal advice to women in detention through telephone and monitoring police stations to support women arrested during lockdowns. Organisations are using radio and social media to spread prevention messages and also advocate for a gender-responsive lens to the COVID-19 response, holding governments to account.
Some organisations are still doing face to face advice sessions with prevention measures (such as a mask and maintaining distance) due to lack of access to technology for many women in rural areas. Nobukhosi Zulu, Director of Isibani Law and Therapy Center in KwaXolo, South Africa, said: “COVID-19 is a very serious disease but we cannot stop what we are doing. I would have no peace staying at home knowing that women who are encountering violence do not have support. I hope the government will address the digital divide and prioritise increasing access to technology in rural areas.”
However, many of civil society groups are finding it challenging to operate due to lack of funding and closing civic space. Civil society organisations are vital partners in curbing this pandemic and need to be included in funding allocated for the response by governments, donors and the private sector. Fast and flexible funding will help them to be more agile in responding to the evolving needs.
Women and girls are underrepresented in public office and decision-making. So too women’s voices are often overlooked in emergencies. We need to involve and respect the voices of women and girls, particularly women’s movements who have been found to be a key factor in addressing violence against women. They know best the challenges but also the solutions.
(Main image: Mural painting and graffiti against domestic violence and rape in Soweto, a township of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality in South Africa. – Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.