How Africa is Navigating Conflict, Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19

The new coronavirus has now infected more than one million people worldwide, with Algeria becoming the country with the highest COVID-19 death toll in Africa. This has forced governments around the world to put new measures to curb the spreading of the virus. For women, the novel coronavirus outbreak is deadly in more than one way. Those who are experiencing domestic violence during mandatory lockdowns are trapped in their homes with their abusers.

In South Africa, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that at least 2,230 gender-based violence cases were reported during the first week of the national lockdown.

Organizations like Musasa Project, Adult Rape Clinic and Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association have opened dedicated hotlines to assist women seeking help for domestic violence and other legal issues that affect women, while Veritas, another women’s rights watchdog in Zimbabwe, has called on the government to raise GBV awareness within communities.

“The government should be aware of the problem of increased domestic violence during the lockdown. More facilities should be made available, and more information on the problem and on where help is available should be distributed nationwide through government channels,” Veritas said.

Between March 30 and April 9, the Musasa Project, an NGO and a member of the Peacebuilding Network of Zimbabwe say it received 764 gender-based violence reports across all platforms. The surge in domestic violence cases in the last two weeks alone gives an insight into the magnitude of gender-based violence countrywide.

For survivors of violence and those who are at risk, the consequences of COVID-19 also mean limited access to life-saving support. The impact is potentially catastrophic in countries affected by armed conflict, ongoing violence, and humanitarian emergencies, where refugees and internally displaced persons are more at risk of contracting the virus because social distancing is impossible.

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“We need to realize that the vast majority of frontline healthcare workers across Africa and indeed across the world are women, there will be areas of its primary health care workers who are most at risk of exposure to the virus and should be prioritized for the provision of protective gear and equipment to prevent illness to allow them to carry out their efforts. So thinking through what that means and looks like is some of what we are working on,” Mark Suzman, Chief Executive Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said during the foundation’s announcement of $150-million more in funds to fight COVID-19.

“Though the data is limited at this stage, there are concerns that in social isolation or physical distancing – when people are staying at home – there is fairly strong anecdotal evidence of increases in issues like GBV which is obviously very worrying. We are trying to get better data and resources around that,” Suzman said. In line with this, one of the Gates’ goals for 2020 is expanding its gender equality focus.

Displaced Women and Girls

“Around the world, COVID-19 is taking lives and changing communities but the virus is also inducing massive protection risks for women and girls forced to flee their homes,” the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Gillian Triggs, said.

The U.N. refugee agency has warned that millions of people across 21 countries in West and Central Africa are facing a potential humanitarian catastrophe because of armed conflict and the impact of coronavirus as the pandemic spreads throughout the region. West and Central Africa have one of the largest displaced populations in Africa with more than nine million people having been forcibly displaced by conflict and extreme weather events related to climate change.

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The conflict-affected areas are usually inaccessible, dangerous, and often beyond the reach of the state. This has impacted peacebuilding efforts because of violations of human rights including suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, attacks on women human rights defenders, increased surveillance by the government, and heavily militarized responses.

In South Sudan, the pandemic is likely to delay the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict which can potentially worsen pre-existing gender inequalities. South Sudan is a host to 1.5 million displaced persons, most of whom are living in camps.

“We need to pay urgent attention to the protection of refugee, displaced, and stateless women and girls at the time of this pandemic. They are among those most at-risk. Doors should not be left open for abusers and no help spared for women surviving abuse and violence,” said Triggs.

How Women Peacebuilders Are Addressing COVID-19 Crisis

As more countries report infection and lockdown and more domestic violence, women and youth peacebuilders continue their work in the face of COVID-19. The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders is developing a COVID-19 and Women Peace and Security (WPS) database, which will document the impacts of COVID-19 on local communities affected by conflict as well as on women’s work on peacebuilding, conflict prevention and sustaining peace. GNWP will use over 100 organizations around the world to collect accurate and up-to-date information. The database aims to encourage the development of gender-responsive and conflict-sensitive interventions on COVID-19. The COVID19- WPS database is a living document that will continuously be updated with information provided by local women and youth peacebuilders as well as secondary data.

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This pandemic has highlighted the challenges and discrimination that women still face in their work. Women comprise the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally making up 70%, yet only 25% of global leaders are female. Leaders are responsible for decision making and have a final say on where funding and research goes. Without women in these positions, subsequent decisions will not sufficiently address the difficulties women face.

In Kenya, a local women peace organization called Rural Women Peace Link is conducting sensitization on safe practices and hygiene through short radio messages translated to local languages and passed to women in rural areas. The messages specifically target women, as they are at a higher risk due to their roles as primary caregivers for the sick and the elderly.

Impact of COVID-19 on Small Businesses Owned by Women

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have a devastating impact on the informal sector economy in most African countries, especially on women, who constitute the majority of informal workers. The response to COVID-19 and the preventative measures imposed in Uganda Includes a ban on the sale of non-food items in markets which is likely to negatively impact women, who are a majority among market sellers and other informal workers. There have also been cases of police brutality against informal workers, including women, who continued to sell goods. The movement restrictions have limited people’s ability to access sexual and reproductive health clinics.

The UN Agency for refugees says the lockdowns and quarantines adopted across the world that have led to restricted movement, reduced community interaction are factors that are significantly exacerbating the risks of intimate partner violence. A food security crisis may also loom in most vulnerable communities due to many factors including a decline in food imports.

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What Can Be Done to Stop GBV

The World Health Organisation recommends that governments and policymakers must include essential services to address violence against women in preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, fund them, and identify ways to make them accessible in the context of physical distancing measures. Health facilities should identify and provide information about services available locally, e.g. hotlines, shelters, rape crisis centers, counseling for survivors, and other such measures.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged for all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.

“The increase in violence against women must be dealt with urgently with 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. Shelters and helplines for women must be considered an essential service for every country with specific funding and broad efforts made to increase awareness about their availability”, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

By Nontobeko Mlambo
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