Striking a balance: Ensuring support and access to justice for gender based violence survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Maura* (not her real name) is among many women and girls who are at risk of experiencing sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence (GBV) during national lockdown periods instituted to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Memory Kadau and Maria Malomalo

At the age of 12, Maura was raped by her father in their family home.

Her mother knew, but remained silent.

Her father was arrested after Maura reported the abuse to the local police.

A few days later, relatives descended on their family home, demanding that she withdraw the charges.

When the family realised that she was adamant, they threatened her brothers and sisters.

“If you don’t withdraw the charges, we will use witchcraft on your siblings.
“We will kill them all and it will be your fault,” they told her.
Scared, confused, defeated and alone, Maura withdrew the charges against her father and told the police that it was all a big misunderstanding.

She still lives with her parents and is in constant fear that the father will abuse her younger sisters.
She watches over them closely like a hawk.
In Zimbabwe, survivors are sharing experiences of how their families force them to tolerate abusers because “they are family and family does not wash dirty linen in public”.

Rapists are protected and no one is held accountable.

It is important to note that more than two thirds of survivors of sexual violence are raped by people they know and more than a third of women who are intentionally killed are murdered by a current or former intimate partner.

This means that some women and girls are forced to stay with their abusers during the lockdown.

The fight against GBV is also a fight against impunity.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, noted that as the world fights against COVID-19, with over 90 countries in lockdown the world is witnessing a shadow pandemic growing; violence against women and girls.

Of concern is that the number of GBV cases is likely to increase, as security, health and financial worries heighten tensions are exacerbated by confinement and restricted movement.
The socio-economic inequalities will place the most vulnerable groups of women at even higher risk of violence.
An erosion and loss of income for women in abusive situations makes it even harder for them to walk away as they become financially dependent on the perpetrators.

Restrictive movement measures as per COVID-19 requirements have already been noted as a barrier to reporting, relocation and/or accessing health services.
A tale of two countries
The first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Angola on March 23.
Since then, 26 confirmed infections with two deaths and six recoveries have been recorded.
To curb the spread of the virus, the Angolan government declared a state of emergency on March 27, with two extensions, the lockdown is due to last until May 10.
Zimbabwe instituted a nationwide 21-day lockdown from March 30 to April 19, 2020 and then extended it by two weeks.
According to the Health and Child Care ministry as at April 26, Zimbabwe had 31 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including five recoveries and four deaths.
The state of emergency and extension of lockdown limits the right to free movement and leaves survivors of GBV with limited options on where to seek refuge.

While the focus is on prevention and response to COVID-19 cases and policing the movement of citizens, less priority is placed on cases of domestic violence emanating from the lockdown in Angola and Zimbabwe.
Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, women already faced high levels of GBV, which have worsened under lockdown conditions.

According to the 2015-2016 Multiple Indicator Health Survey, 31.7% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been victims of domestic violence at one point in their lives in Angola, while 34% of women were victims of intimate partner violence (both sexual and physical).

The reality is that even without the COVID-19 pandemic, access to justice for survivors of GBV is limited and in some instances, unavailable.

In 2011, the Angolan government enacted a law against domestic violence which criminalizes domestic violence and makes provision for psycho-social and judicial support for survivors and temporary shelter for those at risk. In 2013, a National Policy for Gender Equality and Equity, which includes a section on domestic violence was developed outlining the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to ending GBV.

The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS 2015) revealed that one in six women reported that they had experienced sexual violence, and 33% of women between 15 to 49 years have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.

However, more than 90% of GBV survivors neither make official reports to the police nor seek health services.
While access to justice for survivors of GBV exists on paper, the sad reality is that inadequate allocation of both financial and human resources to GBV debilitates both prevention and response mechanisms in Angola and Zimbabwe.

Fear of secondary victimisation from law enforcement, family preservation versus self-preservation, financial instability, threats and fragile reporting systems often mean that survivors circumvent reporting cases of GBV, limiting their access to justice.

Moreover, absence of political will to encourage survivors of GBV to come forward further exacerbates the problem.
It is within this somewhat unstable context that COVID-19 landed.

While some countries such as France, Spain, Canada and South Africa are able to offer alternative accommodation for survivors of GBV, expedite judgements in family courts (mostly relating to protection orders against aggressors), and provide psycho-social support in supermarkets, through helplines and virtual support groups, vulnerable women and girls in less developed countries are faced with a ticking time bomb.

Arguably, the nationwide lockdowns in Angola and Zimbabwe have not been inclusive of the needs and rights of women and girls.

How does someone with no access to a phone or internet (let alone electricity) access justice in GBV cases?
How does a survivor leave her home to report a GBV incident when overzealous, baton wielding law enforcement agents are preventing movement of people trying to seek essential services?

What happens when GBV is less prioritised during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It is apparent that many cases will go unreported.

Thousands of survivors of GBV will suffer in silence.
Peterman et al (2020) in Working Paper 528 on Pandemics and Violence against Women and Children, point out that rape, sexual assault and violence against women and girls which occurred during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa often went undocumented.

This evidently resulted in reduced demand for justice (owing to reduced confidence in the justice system), impunity and victimisation of survivors.

The COVID-19 pandemic will most likely have the same effect. After all, preceding conditions have never been favourable to access to justice for GBV survivors.

What are the ramifications of limited access to justice for survivors of GBV during and post COVID-19?

We could witness an upsurge in chronic illnesses including high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, phobias and alcohol and drug abuse.

The psychological impact of abuse continues even after the act itself has stopped.

In addition, unintended and unwanted pregnancy, abortion and unsafe abortion, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, pregnancy complications, sexual dysfunction, long term psychological and mental health challenges are all possible side effects of abuse.

Equally worrying, is the impact this will have on the progress already made towards enhancing access to justice for survivors of GBV. Survivors of GBV will most likely have less faith in the justice system which could lead to a further reduction in reporting of cases leading to increased cases of GBV.

It is apparent that both in the short and long term, limited access to justice during COVID-19 will haunt our societies long after the pandemic itself has passed.

So, what can we do to ensure that survivors of GBV are not dealt a raw deal during COVID-19?
Policies and recommendations made at the regional and international stages should translate to tangible policies and actions at the local levels. The emphasis should be on developing practical local actions and ensuring that survivors continue to receive the support and care which they need.

Governments should include GBV in the health system response to COVID-19. While it is understandable that government efforts are targeted at containing, preventing and responding to COVID-19, there is need to recall that the pandemic is not spreading in a vacuum and that underlying deficiencies in our policies and systems are undoubtedly magnified by COVID-19.

Governments must include civil society organisations (CSOs) to design and implement effective and inclusive COVID-19 prevention, response and recovery plans. This means ensuring that critical services for survivors of GBV are designated as essential and are accessible to everyone especially women and girls living in remote areas. These are not limited to health and security services for survivors, psycho-social support services and safe shelters.

Governments must persistently send a strong message and raise awareness of the criminal nature of violence and demonstrate zero tolerance to GBV. Communities should be made aware of the increased risk of violence against women and girls and information about where to seek help made available and accessible.

Cases of GBV should be prioritised during lockdown periods, and always. Law enforcement should fully investigate and bring perpetrators to justice.

Above all, we need increased political will from governments to respect and protect the fundamental rights of women and girls during and post COVID-19.

Memory Pamella Kadau is the co-director of the Adult Rape Clinic in Zimbabwe. ARC is a Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO 61/18) which offers comprehensive SGBV management which include medical management to survivors of SGBV, ongoing psycho-social support services, awareness and advocacy surrounding SGBV issues

Maria Malomalo is the founder and director of Associação Mwana Pwo, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Lunda Sul province, Angola whose mission is to inspire young women´s leadership in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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