National lockdowns, implemented by governments around the world, to curb the spread of COVID-19 has had the unintended consequence of contributing to an increase in violence against women and girls (VAWG). Since implementing lockdown measures in Turkey on 11 March 2020, 21 women have been murdered, and in Tunisia cases of domestic violence have increased five-fold since lockdown measures were implemented.
The terminology violence against women and girls (VAWG) emphasizes the focus on abuses specifically committed against women and girls. While gender-based violence (GBV) is widely used to talk about violence against women and girls, by definition it is a broader term that encompasses violence committed because of one gender whether it be men, boys, women, girls, sexual minorities and gender non-conforming identities.
This “shadow pandemic”, as the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has so aptly called it, demonstrates that the gains that women’s rights movement have made over the past few decades are fragile and precarious, especially for those living in conflict zones, or in refugee or internally displaced persons’ camps. The increased global attention on domestic and sexual violence against women and girls demonstrates the efforts to continue to keep this issue on the international agenda.
It is critical to leverage this attention with the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), Regional Economic Communities (RECs), and national governments, to address the root causes of violence against women and girls. As reports of increased domestic violence continues to emerge, the UN, AU and some national governments have mobilised quickly to address the issue, although mainly in the form of policy statements. For example, since UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a domestic violence ceasefire, Ambassadors from 124 UN Member States and Observers, including 28 African nations, have committed to making prevention, and the redress of VAWG, a key element in their national COVID -19 response. Additionally, the heads of 10 UN agencies have also issued a joint video statement.
On 06 May 2020, 59 countries released a joint statement on Protecting Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and Promoting Gender-responsiveness in the COVID-19 crisis. Of the 59 countries, Cabo Verde, Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Namibia, South Africa and Tunisia were the African signatories. The statement outlines the risks COVID-19 poses to women and girls and provides steps for national governments to take in order to act accordingly. Such steps include ensuring the protection of women and girls who are refugees, migrants or internally displaced; supporting the active participation and leadership of women at all levels of decision-making; and ensuring the continued access to sexual and reproductive health services.
The AU’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, Madame Bineta Diop, released a statement on 16 April 2020, where she issued a call to action to ensure that efforts to combat COVID-19 “must not distract us from the zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, nor must it allow impunity for violations of that policy.” The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has also called for collective efforts to combat the increase in gender based violence in Africa, with the Executive Secretary, Madame Stergomena Lawrence Tax, challenging Member States to “sustainably empower and protect women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.”
Indeed, policy commitments are important and hold weight. However, it is the concrete actions that come from these commitments that will have the most real and positive impact. The UN has remained active on this front, evidenced by UN Women’s recently published report highlighting the increase of violence against women and girls and offering recommendations to be considered by government, and international and civil society organisations (CSOs). The UN-European Union (EU) partnered Spotlight Initiative, which is working to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, has mobilised quickly to shift its programming to better respond to the current environment by enhancing their services and campaigns on-line.
Some UN country-level offices in Africa have also been focused on VAWG. For example, the UN in South Africa has launched a $136 million (R2.5 billion) emergency appeal to assist up to 10 million people living in vulnerable communities facing various risks, including domestic violence as a result of COVID-19. Similarly, the UN in Kenya, in partnership with the government of Kenya, is seeking $267 million, of which $4.2 million will be needed to provide lifesaving medical treatment, psycho-social support, and legal representation in relation to violence against children and VAWG. UN Women, UNFPA and UNICEF are working with Kenya’s national GBV hotlines to increase psychosocial support through telephone and chat counselling services.
The women’s movement continues to highlight the issue, advocating for action and providing services to women and girls in vulnerable situations. At a national level, there have been efforts made by some governments to respond to the increase in domestic and gender-based violence. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated that the country’s GBV National Command Centre will remain operational during the lockdown. Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units will be reinforced at police stations, and the Interim Steering Committee on GBV and Femicide, in consultation with CSOs, will develop guidelines and protocols for the management of gender-based violence in the context of COVID-19.
The Liberian government has appointed Minister Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, the Minster of Gender, Children and Social Protection to serve as a member of the Special Presidential Advisory Committee on the Coronavirus. The Egyptian government’s National Council for Women has worked to ensure that a gender perspective is adopted in Egypt’s COVID-19 response plan and they have created a bi-monthly Gender Policy Tracker in order to monitor the government’s response to the crisis through a gender lens. Given the recent surge in domestic violence, Tunisia’s Ministry of Women, Family, Children and Elderly Affairs opened a new refuge for female victims of domestic abuse.
Recognising the unintended consequences of the national lockdowns, there has been strong and rapid response by the UN, AU, the REC’s national governments and various advocacy agents. The challenge is whether the responses and strategies offer the opportunity to truly transform the global response and approach to sexual, domestic and all forms of violence against women and girls or if it is a temporary and short-term reaction. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said so eloquently on 13 April 2020, “some have called for a gender based violence ‘ceasefire’ during the time of the pandemic. This is not enough. We want to see it end, once and for all.”