COVID-19 has at the time of writing infected over has infected over two and a half million people resulting in over 170,000 deaths. This virus continues to ravage world populations with the worst hit countries being in Europe and the Americas. According to a report by gbvguidelines.org, it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the measures deemed necessary to control the spread of the disease are not only increasing Gender Based Violence (GBV) related risks and violence against women and girls, but also limiting survivors’ ability to distance themselves from their abusers as well as reducing their ability to access external support. In addition, it is clear from previous epidemics that during health crises, women typically take on additional physical, psychological and time burden as caregivers putting them at further risk. According to a report by UN News released in March 2020, intimate partner violence is increasing more than ever, with 2 out of 3 women now experiencing violence as compared to 1 in 3 women before COVID-19. Sexual abuse and gender-based violence include, among others, cases like rape, defilement, domestic and family violence, incest, and early or forced marriages.
The rise of sexual and gender based violence as a result of COVID 19 lockdown measures is not only a concern in Kenya but also a global one as victims may be forced into close-quarters with abusive partners for extended periods of time. Economic hardships, due to loss of jobs or unpaid leave, is also having a mental toll on household providers. The Kenya government has adopted strict measures that include lockdown, containment, isolation, forced quarantine and restricted movements to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus. These measures, as necessary as they are, are having particular impact on women and girls who have to spend more time at home with potential or known abusers.
According to government data, 45% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and 14% have experienced sexual violence, this are statistics pre-COVID! The government-imposed restrictions are likely to make it even harder for survivors to report abuse, seek help and medical attention and for service providers to respond efficiently, further exacerbating the problem. An article published in the Daily Nation on the 10th of April,2020 has already noted a spike in cases of SGBV in the country. In an address on 2nd of April 2020, none other than the chief justice of the Republic of Kenya, Justice David Maraga noted the rise of sexual offences since 13th March when the first case of corona virus was confirmed in Kenya. He added that sexual offences constituted 35.8% of cases reported since then. The Ministry of Public Services, Youth and Gender Affairs also reported a 42% increase of SGBV cases in the last 30 days, and majority of cases reported on the toll-free number were on SGBV. These statistics only confirm the fact that, as a nation we are sitting on a time bomb that is likely to reverse all the gains made in the gender based violence realm and further marginalize and cut back on the rights and freedom of women and girls.
Especially now, there is the need at facility level to adhere to the guidelines recently released by the office of the Director General of Health specific to the case management of SGBV and to widely share the national SGBV help line number, 1195. Sexual violence has devastating consequences that, if ignored, may lead to long lasting and tragic implications. Just as has been done for quarantine locations, the government must set up protection measures such as providing safe spaces where women and girls, survivors or those at risk of this criminality may find solace far from their abusers.
The help line provided by the Ministry of Health as well as other measures provided by other bodies including the Kenyan chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA Kenya), need to be galvanized with strategies in place to economically empower women and offer psycho-social counselling to help victims of SGBV live productive lives free from mental and psychological anguish during and long after COVID-19 has been dealt with. In addition, continuity of support to SGBV survivors including efforts such as those advanced by various players, like the Law Society of Kenya in sharing key messaging and contact information for SGBV victims, need to be scaled up and widely shared (see LSK messaging below).
As governments remain preoccupied with the fight against the COVID-19, they must not lose sight of other pandemics in the making, SGBV has a direct correlation with Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore COVID-19 presents a real threat to the reversal of gains made towards attainment of gender equality, gender equity and equal rights and opportunities for girls and women.
A comprehensive and global response to fighting COVID 19 must include interventions that protect women and girls against violence. It is critical that all actors involved in efforts to respond to COVID-19 – across all sectors – take SGBV into account within their program planning and implementation.