The fight against gender based violence remains a priority even in the raging pandemic
By Esinathy Sibanda
Trending videos of men gruesomely kicking and bashing women on social media are just one recent example of gender-based violence gleaned in our society, but unfortunately, it is all too common, and—for multiple colliding reasons—the prevalence of such violence appears to have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Existing high levels of GBV in Zimbabwe, driven by factors including patriarchal social norms and gender inequalities, have been exacerbated by the responses to the pandemic.
Since the lockdown began, Zimbabwean organisations have seen increases in reports of GBV and child protection concerns, including child marriage, underage pregnancy and girls engaging in transactional sex.
Prior to the pandemic, girls from poorer households and girls with lower levels of formal education were at higher risk of child marriage in Zimbabwe (ZIMSTAT, 2018).
COVID-19 threatens to bring more girls into this high-risk group. Children have been exposed to abuse as school closures have left them without that protective environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has wide ranging implications for women’s economic situation and rights in Zimbabwe, which were already restricted.
Movement restrictions and the closure of markets and borders have had significant impacts on informal workers, agriculture workers and cross-border traders, which represent large percentages of women.
The socio-economic effects of COVID-19 have worsened financial and food insecurity across the country, raising household tensions.
Women and girls have also faced additional demands on their time, as social norms and rigid gender roles has meant that the responsibility for caring for children out of school or family members who are unable to access healthcare, has fallen on their shoulders.
Women and girls, particularly those in rural areas, face additional barriers in accessing SRH, including GBV services such as the clinical management of rape.
Movement restrictions make it difficult to access services discreetly, some SRH service delivery points have been forced to close, and increased financial pressures have made contraception, testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and maternity services unaffordable.
Border closures have made accessing safe, legal abortions more difficult. SRH services offer an opportunity to identify and support survivors of GBV, an opportunity that is being missed as fewer women and girls can access services during lockdown.
In May last year, the United Nations (UN) issued an alert about the alarming rise of rape and domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown. Proclaiming a “Shadow Pandemic,” UN Women cited the following reasons for alarm:
– Globally, even before the pandemic began, one in three women experienced physical or sexual violence, mostly perpetrated by an intimate partner.
– Emerging data shows an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19.
– Survivors have limited information and awareness about available services and limited access to support services.
– In some countries, resources have been diverted from mitigating violence against women to providing COVID-19 relief
As health facilities and mobile clinics also suspended their operations, access to sexual and reproductive health services, which was already limited, decreased further.
Under lockdown, cases of gender-based violence and sexual abuse have increased, but reporting has decreased. Most girls are unable to go out and report incidents and have to keep living with their abusers and fearing for their lives.
Many women and girls’ lives continue to be blighted by the daily reality of violence in the home or in the street. Gender-based violence is already a pervasive human rights concern in Zimbabwe and the spike in domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns has had catastrophic consequences.
Self-isolation for women in coercive or violent relationships means being trapped (often without the means of accessing support) with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet.
Lockdowns also mean medical services and support to people affected by Sexual GBV may be cut off or considered less important in healthcare structures which are overburdened by responding to COVID-19 cases instead.
Lockdowns and lack of prioritization of SGBV response services mean many women will face forced pregnancies. In turn, restricted access to abortion care facilities or pharmacies that provide medical abortions if quarantine periods are extended may lead to unsafe abortions and increased mortality among SGBV survivors.
Another fear is that SGBV survivors may also face difficulties accessing contraception for HIV and STI prevention. Lack of timely treatment can put their health and life at risk.
In recent years, while women’s rights defenders across the region have won important battles that brought limited advances in women’s rights, in particular through legislative reforms repealing discriminatory laws, this progress has been overshadowed by governments either committing or at the very least acquiescing to gender-based violence that continues to have a devastating impact on women’s lives.
Yet these gains have been overshadowed by continuing violence and discrimination women face, particularly in matters of marriage, inheritance and child custody, and have been undermined by weak implementation of reforms and continued denial of women’s agency.
Inadequate government action to protect women from gender-based violence and address impunity has long perpetuated this form of abuse.
As a first step, authorities must publicly condemn all forms of gender-based violence and dismantle discriminatory structures that facilitate such abuse – such as male guardianship.
They must also ensure that the rights of survivors are protected, that survivors can safely access justice and that perpetrators are held to account. Survivors must be able to access adequate shelter, psycho-social support as well as legal and other services.
The fight against gender based violence remains a priority even in the raging pandemic. This shadow pandemic has devastating effects equating to that of Covid-19. Dual action is key to eliminating both pandemics.
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