Gender-Based Violence – The “Shadow Pandemic” Of COVID-19
While a face mask could provide some protection against COVID-19, the lives of many women in Africa, and elsewhere, are at the mercy of their abusers. (Photo Credit: Paul Adepoju)

Ibadan, Nigeria – Twenty-two year-old Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, freshly admitted to university, had retreated to study in a church in the city of Benin, Nigeria during lockdown, when she was raped and killed on May 30. 

The following day, 18-year-old Barakat Bello was reportedly raped and killed in Oyo state. 29-year-old Azeezat Shomuyiwa and 21-year-old Grace Oshiagwu also suffered similar fates just days and few streets apart. In late March 2020, a video from Ghana surfaced on social media showing a boyfriend assaulting his girlfriend. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand globally, African countries as well as other nations worldwide are also dealing with another related pandemic – that of gender-based violence. 

The stress triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns and economic uncertainty is exacerbating violent assaults, according to experts speaking at a panel last week hosted by the WHO Regional Office for Africa. Effectively, the pandemic has forced many women who are in abusive relationships to remain shut up at home with their abusers, further escalating their risks, they said. 

Social media responses condemning the gruesome murder and rape of Vera Uwaila Omozuwa. (Photo Credit: Youth Alive Foundation )
A “Shadow Pandemic”

Gender-based violence is a “shadow pandemic” to COVID-19 said UN Women’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. She noted that in Africa as well as elsewhere in the world, domestic violence hotlines and shelters are reporting rising calls for help.

“Confinement is fostering the tension and strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement on violence against women and girls

“It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors. And in parallel, as health systems are stretching to breaking point, domestic violence shelters are also reaching capacity, a service deficit made worse when centres are repurposed for additional COVID-response.” 

Africa has struggled with social attitudes sanctioning violent attacks on women, well before the pandemic began. For instance, in 2017, researchers at the University of Ghana reported that men who were in consensual unions or customary marriages remained in favour of wife beating.

Police attitudes are often lax as well. Following Uwaila’s rape and murder in Benin, Nigeria, for instance, the local police initially demanded a “mobilization money” from the family to open an investigation, according to  the victim’s sister, who finally led a protest to the Edo State police headquarters to trigger action – which she videotaped on Instagram.   

Now, in the period of COVID-19, for every 3 months lockdowns are imposed or continue, an additional 15 million extra cases of gender-based violence could be recorded worldwide, states a new report, COVID-19: A Gender Lens, by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). And six months of lockdown could result in additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence in the world.   

Photo Credit: UN Women

While the most extreme outcome, gender-based violence is not the only way women are suffering from  lockdown restrictions, noted Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director while unveiling a new analysis by UNFPA and partners. 

“Millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health,” she said, noting that women often cannot get to health services for basic care. “Women’s reproductive health and rights must be safeguarded at all costs. The services must continue; the supplies must be delivered; and the vulnerable must be protected and supported.”

Fighting the Shadow Pandemic 

In Africa, political leaders have generally been reluctant to make themselves the face of campaigns against gender-based violence, the panel participants observed, recommending that Africa’s political leaders need to start speaking up now. 

“African leaders need to declare this situation as another pandemic and appeal to people, men, society, and those who set norms. African leaders need to speak up and recognise this is happening,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO African Regional Director while speaking on the panel.

Governments also need to make gender-violence prevention initiatives integral to economic and healthcare programmes dealing with COVID-19, she said. 

Matshidiso Moeti

Specifically, she mentioned that police officers and health workers in African countries need to be made aware of the roles they are supposed to play in prevention of gender-based violence.

For countries that are still in the dark over what to do, she noted that the government can work with men and women groups to improve the level of public education, provision of call numbers to report cases of abuse, and establishment of shelters to provide help and services to victims.

“These can be part of the socio-economic response to the pandemic,” Moeti added.

While most African countries now have legislation against gender-based violence, political leadership is still missing, agreed Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

“I so rarely hear a male African leader speaking and leading on this issue. Most African leaders leave it to others, yet it is a pandemic – a silent one too,” Byanyima said.

For Africa to advance in tackling gender-based violence, African leaders must be saddled with the responsibility of providing political leadership, she said. 

One leader that has spoken up recently was South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, a political powerful voice, as he is also the head of the African Union. Speaking to the media last week, he blamed the reopening of liquor stores as lockdown measures eased for a spate of attacks on women in that country. Those included pregnant, Tshegofatso Pule who was found hanging from a tree, Naledi Phangindawo, who was stabbed, and Sanele Mfaba whose body was later found in a Soweto township.  

South African campaigners note that in fact violence against women shot up from the moment the lockdowns began. The police force’s gender-based violence hotline received 2,300 calls in the first five days – nearly three times the rate prior to lockdown. 

Even so, Ramaphosa’s remarks were significant as this represented one of the few instances when an African Head of State has spoken out forcefully on the issue. 

Community-based Prevention and Education Are Key    

While some actions are being taken to improve Africa’s response to gender-based violence including building police and judiciary systems that understand their roles and can prosecute cases of gender-based violence, more needs to be done about awareness-raising and education that can prevent crimes from ever occurring, stressed Byanyima.

“In my view, we are weakest on prevention. You need aggressive campaigns discouraging violent behaviors of boys and men, especially the way they see their masculinity and how they exercise it. That discouragement still needs to happen,” Byanyima said.

Presently, this duty is largely left to civil societies and women organisations, but Byanyima noted that it is the business of the government to invest in continual campaigning in communities to change how relationships can be managed without violence.  

Winnie Byanyima

“This is about men’s behavior – the way men are raised and see themselves as men. Tackling toxic masculinity is something that is not well invested in,” she said.

Another necessary action to tackle the silent pandemic is to empower girls and women in African societies. Citing data from HIV, the UNAIDS Executive Director noted that an African girl’s vulnerability to HIV, sexual violence, unintended pregnancy and early marriage reduce by up to 50% if she is able to complete high school.

But while African leaders have ratified universal basic education requiring every child to get at least primary education, two-thirds of children in Africa do not have access to secondary education.

“The time for secondary education has come. We fought for universal primary education in Beijing and within ten years we have achieved it. Now we need to draw the line and say every government worth its name must put its kids, boys and girls, through high school. Not only for the knowledge economy but also for the safety and empowerment of girls and fighting gender-based violence,” Byanyima said.

Story of Success: Experts Laud Rwanda’s One Stop Center For Sexual Violence 

Bineta Diop, African Union’s Special Envoy on Women Peace & Security, recommended African governments adopting Rwanda’s one-stop center for sexual violence. 

Located within the Kacyiru Police Hospital, the Isange One Stop Centre, the Isange One Stop Center has become a hub for gender-based violence survivors. At the center, survivors can access all the required services in one place and for free. The center is operated by the country’s Gender and Family Promotion, of Health, and Justice ministries in addition to the Rwanda National Police.

Bineta Diop

The initiative that started in 2009 as a pilot has since been expanded across the country. Rwanda now has a One Stop Centre in every district. Every day, up to 12 survivors are received at the center. 

“28% are survivors of intimate partner violence and 78 percent are survivors of sexual violence. Of the 78% of survivors who have been sexually assaulted, 16% are younger than 5 years,” said Daniel Nyamwasa, Commissioner of Police and Chief Infectologist Consultant at the hospital.

Diop also encouraged African governments to acquire DNA testing capabilities to provide evidence that could be used to prosecute cases of rape and other gender-based violence against women and girls.

Enlisting More Women in Police and Judiciary 

Another solution is the enlistment of more women in the police and judiciary systems across the continent which Diop said will encourage more women to approach the legal system to file complaints. She also called for the engagement of Africa’s traditional leaders.

“If you want to break the patriarchal system, you have to engage the traditional system,” Diop said.

However, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa is increasing, African governments are also focusing on how to quickly and safely reopen their economies to minimize the impact of the pandemic. 

This current reality threatens the materialization of recommendations giving more attention to combating gender-based violence. 

But Ramaphosa, for one, has said this does not have to be the case. In his comments last week, he stressed that action can and should be taken to combat violence, despite the numerous familiar and peculiar challenges that countries across the continent are facing:

“For public faith in the criminal justice system to be maintained, gender-based violence needs to be treated with the urgency it deserves by our communities working together with our police.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa

Image Credits: Paul Adepoju, Twitter: Youth Alive Foundation, UN Women.