Opinion: Toward an infrastructure for gender-based violence response — lessons in the age of COVID-19

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Residents of Eersterust, South Africa, protest against gender-based violence outside the home of a slain woman. Photo by: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency / Reuters

Not long into the coronavirus pandemic, many reports about a “shadow pandemic” related to spikes in sexual and gender-based violence were released worldwide. By June, my heart shattered as I read an article about my neighboring country, revealing that nearly 4,000 Kenyan teens “got pregnant” during COVID-19 school shutdowns.

As a gender specialist, I immediately began to think about the direct link to these acts of rape as a strong indication of the sheer lack of proper emergency health preparedness, especially given the fact that Kenya is among the countries reporting a 30% to 50% average increase in sexual and gender-based violence amid lockdowns.

In my country of residence, the police and Ministry of Health — the two public institutions leading the response to gender-based violence in Uganda — spend an estimated 37.7 billion Ugandan shillings ($10 million) annually addressing GBV.

The reality is that many women have been living in a state of emergency well before COVID-19, and emergency situations illuminate and exacerbate existing harmful practices. Billions are invested annually by governments and international organizations in disaster preparedness, but while shelter, food, water and sanitation, or related needs are addressed, the impacts of a sustained lack of access to mental health services or lack of resources to prevent domestic violence and GBV are often an afterthought.

While we are still coping with the trauma, the time to act is now, because what we do next can make or break the fabric of our nations and communities.

This has to change. We need to strategically partner with humanitarian relief efforts to build an infrastructure for durable, effective, emergency GBV response at national levels.

With extended confinement and lockdowns in place, it is evident that the risk of violence in the home and community has increased drastically. According to gender analyses conducted by CARE International, the pandemic has considerably increased women and girls’ unpaid care burden, as they are now looking after out-of-school children and out-of-work household members at home.

Furthermore, the higher and more frequent demand for water that accompanies COVID-19 hand-washing precautions exacerbates this situation and means that women and girls are spending even more time on water collection.

Reports have also noted that many of these young women and children are typically impacted by physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. This is a particular concern for vulnerable groups, including refugees, migrants, and children who are displaced within their own countries or living without parental care, on the street, in urban slums, with disabilities, or in areas with a high prevalence of HIV.

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For many of these children, growing economic vulnerability will increase the threat of child labor, sex for survival, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and child trafficking. It is fair to say, therefore, that home is not safe for everyone — especially for many women and girls. Imagine asking a woman or girl whether she is more afraid of contracting COVID-19 or staying home and she responds that it is the latter.

East Africa has been touted for its success in combating the public health impacts of COVID-19. This raises the question: Is the response truly successful if we stop the spread of the coronavirus yet GBV endures? We know that the risks have increased, so taking steps to identify high-risk women and link them with appropriate police, health, and social services is essential.

As a public health social worker, I cannot emphasize enough the need for well-designed, culturally appropriate activities that expand support options for those experiencing trauma due in part to coronavirus-related conditions.

So how do we get there? Here are a few critical steps:

1. Expand the existing evidence base. We know that the data on GBV cases is not sufficient and underreporting is prevalent.

2. Collect pertinent data, where available, and provide a suite of core services such as psychosocial and trauma counseling, programming for gender norm change, and community strengthening — for example, through the SASA! violence prevention program in Uganda.

3. Go virtual. With movement limited for the foreseeable future, virtual options are of great interest. The United Nations Development Programme offers a great example of leveraging existing platforms, as it partnered with Jumia Food Uganda, the leading e-commerce company in the country, to incorporate messaging geared toward preventing violence against women and girls on a platform that connects small and medium-sized enterprises and informal market vendors with customers.

4. Go local. While emergency response planning usually happens at the national level, the onus has generally been on regional and health facilities to provide the GBV response. In this moment, community leaders are more important than ever — whether it’s mitigating GBV issues, connecting survivors to resources, or identifying community members with a high risk or history of domestic partner violence or child abuse.

These leaders may also be a resource to help perpetrators, police, prosecution authorities, counseling centers, help lines, and others define appropriate intervention strategies that are responsive to local needs.

5. Don’t forget mental health. Domestic violence and GBV are not just physical; mental health and well-being are crucial for vulnerable communities. The infrastructure has to be inclusive of support services for those with existing or newly occurring mental health needs, whether they are coping with stress, anxiety, panic, or other conditions.

The tools and methodologies for the prevention of GBV and addressing the related psychosocial needs for affected populations must be prioritized and coordinated alongside national emergency interventions. The situation in Uganda is not unique; it is comparable to many other contexts, underscoring that these needs are real, dire, and compelling. Pairing GBV programming with long-term crisis response efforts should garner substantial attention and investment.

I therefore urge governments, civil society, health practitioners, social workers, emergency responders, and every part of the ecosystem to join together to make this a reality. While we are still coping with the trauma, the time to act is now, because what we do next can make or break the fabric of our nations and communities.

While we see high-level political discussions occuring about reopening schools or social distancing, the fact that many are experiencing increased domestic violence, statutory rape, child marriage, and other equally damaging physical and mental abuse daily is not at the top of agenda, and it should be. Let’s bring the shadow pandemic to light.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Chinonye Egbulem

    Chinonye "Chi Chi" Egbulem is a gender specialist, social-impact thought leader, and racial equity consultant. All of her advocacy work is centered on racial equity, economic empowerment, and the use of mindfulness-based programs for post-traumatic healing.