For the better part of 2020, East African countries have been battling to contain the spread of Covid-19 with over 46,633 cases reported across Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda as of September 6.
Among them, Kenya and Rwanda account for the larger chunk with 35,103 and 4,349 cases reported in the respective States.
Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda responded by imposing lockdown, curfews, advising non-essential State and non-State personnel to work from home, shutdown of learning institutions as well as cancellation of international flights and social distancing restrictions to contain spread of the virus.
However, some countries in the region downplayed the existence of the virus, thereby risking the lives of their citizens and of the neighbouring countries.
In all, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only presented health, economic and social challenges but also changed lives in many different ways; across the East African block, the lives of women, girls, gender non-conforming groups and people living with disability are increasingly endangered by the catastrophic secondary impacts that continue to shadow the pandemic.
Aside from the devastating loss of livelihoods, the pandemic has magnified structural violence and inequalities that the most vulnerable in the society continue to endure even in ‘peace’ times.
With the stay at home order, women and girls are increasingly finding themselves in the ‘lockdown’ with their abusers and isolated from their support networks and essential services.
In Uganda, a total of 3,280 cases of gender-based violence (GBV) were reported to the police during the first month of the lockdown, attracting the attention of President Yoweri Museveni who called on couples to use dialogue to resolve domestic conflicts.
Aside from violence in the home, gender non-conforming groups have also been hit harder with constant arrests and vicious waves of violence from the police over fears that they are engaging in “negligent activities that are likely to spread infections”-a move that activists say advances homophobia among communities.
And, in what might seem like another “war” amidst the pandemic, gender norms compounded by inequalities continue to take a staggering toll on the lives of South Sudanese women and girls.
The ongoing closure of schools is even making it worse, girls have been left at a greater risk of defilement, harassment, early marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), teenage pregnancies and disproportionate burden of domestic work.
The aforementioned situation also mirrors the struggles of most women and girls in Burundi and Tanzania.
Prior to the pandemic, pregnant girls in Tanzania were being forced to undergo invasive pregnancy tests, expelled or forced to drop out of schools. In 2017, Tanzania reinforced a law originally passed in 2002 that bars pregnant girls from attending regular school and punishes teachers who don’t honor the ban. As a result, young girls are denied the opportunity to learn and build better futures.
Beyond the Covid-19, these girls may find it even harder to continue with their education due to forced marriages and harmful practices that continue to barricade their ability to realise their rights to quality education.
In Kenya, Covid-19 has greatly impacted the normalities of women and girls in their diversities. Just two weeks into the lockdown, the National Council on Administration of Justice reported a 35.8 percent spike in sexual offenses across the country, with perpetrators of these heinous acts being close relatives, guardians and/or persons living with the victims.
Further, Prof Margaret Kobia, Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs reported a 42 percent GBV increase in the month of March and April, with sexual abuse cases in the majority. She attributed the sharp rise in GBV to families forced to be at home and with increased unemployment and heightened stress levels.
Women’s rights organisations like the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (Creaw), who have been among the first responders to incidences of SGBV during the pandemic, have also recorded a 54 percent increase in the number of women and girls making frantic calls to report violation and seek referrals to safe shelters away from violent homes.
A similar trend was also recorded by the Gender Violence Recovery Center (GVRC), who also recorded 327 GBV cases in March, compared to 250 cases that they would normally attend to prior to the pandemic.
In light of this, GBV response services, particularly in Kenya, have been on the decline as attention shifts to the containment of Covid-19. Evidently, lockdowns and movement restrictions have even made it harder for women and girls to report abuse and seek help.
Along the GBV referral pathways, countless survivors continue to lack access to the much needed essential services for their safety, protection and recovery, police response, shelters and psycho-social support. With the exception of Makueni County that now has a fully-fledged State-run shelter to offer integrated GBV services to survivors, immediate rescue responses is wanting in all the other 46 counties.
Aside from the challenges in addressing violence against women and girls mirrored in Kenya and other East African States, we must shine the light where enormous efforts have been made.
This means that all of us have a role to play. To this end, Rwanda makes a good example of countries that fast-tracked and strengthened their social protection to safeguard its citizens from economic shocks, particularly for people who eke out a living on a day-to-day basis.
The Rwandan government took the commendable steps to provide food and other provisions to fill basic needs for the most vulnerable citizens, an initiative that was quickly embraced by other individuals and the private sector.
Similarly, civil society organisations, among them women’s rights groups across East Africa, have also quickly adapted to provide the vital support services to survivors during the pandemic; from setting up toll-free lines to providing tele-psycho-social support, legal aid and referrals to media and digital campaigns to advocate for healthy and non-violent relationships.
The organisations are also making it a point to petition their respective governments to integrate GBV services in their Covid-19 mitigation efforts.
In the first months of Covid-19 in Uganda, women human rights defenders led by the Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/AIDS (Uganet) established a toll-free line 0800-333-123 to respond to cases of gender-based violence following a police report indicating a surge in the cases.
In Kenya, Creaw has expanded their safety nets initiatives to include cash transfers to survivors of gender-based violence, distribution of dignity kits and support to shelters to accommodate survivors as they reorganise their lives. Coalition On Violence Against Women (COVAW) has also launched a campaign Wapekimbilio, that seeks to establish shelters/ safe houses for survivors of domestic violence in different counties in Kenya.
With that said, the Covid-19 pandemic is gifting us with an opportunity to make it right and address the root causes of violence against women.
Right from the households to the communities, we must move to address power inequalities driven by the age-old patriarchal attitudes that continue to exact violence as a tool of control to exploit and trap women and girls to silence.
It is therefore important to increase investments and commitments on initiatives that seek to address the root causes found in gender, social norms and discriminatory communal and institutional structures.
We must also ensure that we do not roll back on the gains made in recent years and widen the gender gaps despite years of progress.
Governments must take bold steps, short-term, medium- term and long-term to integrate GBV prevention, response and management in their Covid-19 mitigation and containment interventions.
The first step is to strengthen reporting structures like the national GBV helpline, gender desk and community-level reporting mechanisms to identify women and girls trapped at home with their abusers. GBV services must also be categorised as essential services and kept open for ease of accessibility at all times.
Stimulus packages to stimulate the economy must also be engendered to address the secondary impacts of the pandemic on women.
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Such initiatives must target to cushion households from economic shocks, most especially on women and girls who form part of the informal sector workforce whose livelihoods have been greatly affected during the pandemic.
World over, cash transfers have been proven as a better way of providing dignified relief and powering households to make choices on their felt need and build resilient livelihoods.
During the pandemic, we have also witnessed disruption in the dispensing of judicial services to survivors of GBV- most courts have experienced temporary closures as safety precautions for Covid-19 came into play, prompting cases to be deferred, hence lengthening the caseload expedition timeframe.
It is critical that such be mitigated through the establishment of special courts across the criminal justice system to expedite GBV cases with urgency.
In a bid to strengthen the referral pathways, hospitals and the entire health sector must collaborate with GBV actors among them line organisations to effectively deliver services to survivors in accordance with Covid-19 mitigation measures. High quality clinical care to survivors must also be accessible at all times.
It is also key to note that some of the women’s rights organisations across East Africa are not well resourced to provide the much-needed support to women and girls fleeing violent homes during Covid-19.
It is thus critical that development partners and governments listen and provide the much-needed resources and support to complement their work and strengthen their capacity to increase their community responses and build resilience during Covid-19 and thereafter.
As individuals and communities, we must all take responsibility and be accountable for the actions and practices that endanger the lives of women and girls.
The first step is to create safer communities for women, girls and vulnerable groups to move freely, live in dignity and enjoy their rights and freedoms as equal members of the society. At all times, we must all endeavor to address the norms that stifle survivors into silence!
Jean Kemitare and Carol Werunga (UAF-Africa) and Wangechi Wachira.