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The invisible pandemic: COVID-19’s toll on African women and girls


Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a “shadow pandemic” across the globe: domestic violence cases have risen dramatically since pandemic-induced lockdowns and school closures last year, and women and girls are at greater risk of sexual abuse.

According to a UN Women report, reports of domestic violence increased by 30% in France in the first few weeks of the start of the pandemic. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25%, and in Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30% and 33%, respectively. Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States also saw increased demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence survivors. A preliminary assessment by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that calls to the national helpline for domestic violence victims in Italy increased by up to four times during the lockdown between February and April 2020.

But curfews and lockdowns have restricted women’s access to support services. “As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them,” says the report.

In Africa, there has been a dramatic surge in gender-based violence cases. There was a 48% increase in reported gender-based violence cases in East African countries, with Kenya also reporting a significant spike in rape and defilement cases, according to a joint report by the African Union (AU) Commission, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Women. In Lagos State in Nigeria, domestic violence cases rose by over 100% during the first lockdown period in March last year.

The Central African Republic recorded a 69% increase in reported injuries to women and children and a 27% increase in rape cases, according to a UN report from June 2020 . Tunisia experienced a nine-fold increase in violence against women and girls. Algeria reported an increase in femicide, with a murder of a woman occurring every three or four days. And in South Africa, police recorded a 37% increase in gender-based violence cases within the first week of the lockdown in April last year.

Women living in refugee camps also experienced more domestic violence. An International Rescue Committee (IRC) survey in 15 African countries found that more than 70% of displaced and refugee women saw a rise in domestic violence in their communities.

The true extent of the shadow pandemic

These figures, however, could be an underestimate. Most cases of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, are not reported to the police or other law enforcement authorities. One woman cited in the UN Women report [AP2] said that the police did not file her complaint, dismissing it as a family matter. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, says that the rise in gender-based violence in South Africa has “magnified existing structural problems such as poverty, inequality, crime, high unemployment and systematic criminal justice failures.”

There was also a marked decrease in the reporting of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence to the authorities during lockdowns in some countries. Women confined to their homes did not want to break social distancing directives by going to the police. The UNODC assessment found that in many countries, reporting of rape and sexual assault cases decreased during lockdowns but reverted to previous levels once lockdown measures were relaxed.

Girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence, child marriage, and teen pregnancy due to school closures during the pandemic. “School closures intensify gender inequalities, especially for the poorest girls and adolescents who face a greater risk of early and forced marriage, sexual abuse and unintended pregnancy during emergencies,” says the report. Child marriages are most common among girls whose parents are unable to pay school fees due to loss of income.

Teenage pregnancy has also increased. In the town of Lodwar in Northern Kenya, teen pregnancies recorded by the IRC tripled to 625 between June and August 2020, compared with 226 teen pregnancies in the same period in 2019. In Malawi, the Civil Society Coalition reported almost 5,000 cases of teen pregnancy in just one district. And in Uganda, at least 4,300 teen pregnancies were registered by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development within a four-month period.

The need for support services and response plans

A lack of sufficient counselling and support services for women and girls are making matters worse. An Amnesty International briefing shows that Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have not incorporated support services for women and girls into their COVID-19 responses.

Health facilities in most African countries were already over-stretched before the pandemic, and shelters and counselling and support services for women and children experiencing violence are few and far between. But this issue isn’t unique to Africa. Countries around the world are struggling to prioritise support services for women and girls, with health services overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response,” says the UN Women report.

However, many African countries are now recognising that increasing cases of violence against women and children are undermining their efforts to contain COVID-19. Some countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, and Cape Verde, have established hotlines for those experiencing domestic violence. Uganda is developing standard operating procedures that include gender-based violence in the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 case management package.

UN Women, the African Union, and other organisations are urging African governments to prioritise gender-based violence in their COVID-19 response plans. Governments must establish integrated and holistic responses to the current health crisis that combine vaccinations and other medical interventions with support services for victims of gender-based violence. This will ensure that the negative impacts of COVID-19 do not linger on long after the pandemic is over.

Stay informed

For more on the health, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 in Africa, check out ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker. It pulls together the latest real-time data from global institutions, governments, and universities about the impacts of the pandemic for the continent and for every African country. For more insights and analysis, sign up for our Aftershocks newsletter and follow us @ONEAftershocks.

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