By Sophie Nyongesa
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25th November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10th December, Human Rights Day; indicating that violence against women is the most pervasive breach of human rights worldwide. It is used as an organizing strategy by individuals, communities and organizations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) is a pervasive threat that survives through harmful gender norms and silence, and which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines for integrating GBV in humanitarian action, it is becoming increasingly clear that many of the measures deemed necessary to control the spread of COVID- 19 are not only increasing gender based violence 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.
The UN Women reported that violence against women especially domestic violence intensified as countries implemented lockdown measures to stop the spread of Coronavirus; in some countries calls to helplines increasing five-fold. Moreover, formal reports of domestic violence have decreased in other countries as survivors find it harder to seek help and access support through the regular channels. Economic hardships, due to lose 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. The government- imposed restrictions are likely to make it harder for survivors to report abuse, seek help and medical attention, and for service providers to respond efficiently, further exacerbating the problem.
Sexual and gender based violence include, among others, cases like rape, defilement, domestic and family violence, incest and early or forced marriages. Sexual violence undermines the health and autonomy of survivors and often contributes to a lifetime of negative outcomes, including adverse sexual and reproductive health consequences such as unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Just as it 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 find solace far from their abusers.
There is the need at the facility level to adhere to the guidelines released by the Office of the Director General of Health specific to the case management of SGBV and widely share the national SGBV help line number, 1195. 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 psychosocial 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.
Laws and their effective implementation are a critical foundation in preventing violence against women and girls and responding to this grave human rights violation. Although a number of laws and policies are now in place to address multiple forms of violence against women, many gaps still remain. These gaps include; gender-blind policies and justice responses, limited funding for essential services such as legal aid for survivors’ violence, legal loopholes and lack of national laws or legislation in many countries. Moreover, deeply engrained biases within societies with deep impact on the justice and legal systems leave women and girls exposed to multiple forms of violence in their lifetime, with domestic violence and harmful practices often seen as private matters that are “outside justice”. Effective enforcement of the law would have a great impact in preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls.
According to the World Health Organization, promoting gender equality is a critical part of violence prevention. School, community and media interventions can promote gender equality and prevent violence against women by challenging stereotypes that give men power over women. Moreover, changing cultural and social norms that support violence aids in eliminating violence.
Although the voices of activists and survivors have reached an apex that cannot be silenced or ignored, ending violence against women will require more investment, leadership and action. It cannot be sidelined; it must be part of every country’s national response, especially during the unfolding COVID-19 crisis.
As the world grapples with the pandemic, more needs to be done to prioritize addressing violence against women and girls in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. Eliminating violence against women and girls requires a community-based, multi-pronged approach, and sustained engagement with multiple stakeholders. The most effective initiatives address underlying risk factors for violence, including social norms regarding gender roles and the acceptability of violence. Let us all join hands in eliminating violence. Every effort counts towards total elimination of this vice!