THE El Nino-induced drought which devastated Lesotho during the 2015/16 agricultural resulted in crop failure and acute food security as well as loss of livestock among other challenges.
Less obvious, however, was the drought's underlying effects on Lesotho's society, with women, girls and other vulnerable groups more susceptible to gender-based violence (GBV) during the period.
El Nino is a periodic climatic phenomenon characterised by inadequate rain in some parts of the world and floods in others.
Lesotho was one of the southern African countries worst hit by the 2015/16 El Nino-induced drought, leaving over 600 000 people food insecure and living below poverty line.
As part of its multi-pronged response to the Lesotho government's plea for humanitarian assistance, the United Nations Populations Fund (UNPFA) embarked on a baseline study on the drought's effect on GBV and the availability of services to assist GBV victims in the country's 10 districts.
The baseline study was carried out between November and December 2016, with the report unveiled last Thursday.
According to the report, the abuse of women and girls increased significantly during the drought period, with 53.8 percent of respondents stating that GBV cases occurred during the period.
"Of all respondents in the 10 districts, Mokhotlong district had more respondents who perceived that GBV increased as a result of El Nino while Quthing had more people who did not believe that there was an increase due to El Nino," the report notes.
Herd boys topped the list of GBV perpetrators, although they were also victims or survivors of GBV.
"The herd boys were reported to rob, rape and physically assault women and young girls to and from social service points. Herd boys were also considered to be survivors in the sense that during the drought, they were forced to abandon school to work for food. This was reported more in rural than in urban areas."
The common forms of GBV experienced by women and girls during the drought include: physical (27.5 percent), sexual (22.8 percent), emotional (20.6 percent), socio-economic (22.9 percent) and harmful traditional practices (seven percent).
Women, elderly women and adolescent girls constituted the majority of victims.
The report also states that the drought increased women and girls' vulnerability to GBV as they strived to fulfil their traditionally-ascribed roles as care givers and providers of household food and water.
Women, girls and -- on rare occasions men -- were at great risk of encountering violence in households, fields, on the way to and from accessing social services, public transport as well as employment in the case of urban factory workers.
"Beneficiaries of food parcels and antiretroviral (ARVs) were reported to have been targeted on their way from the distribution points and clinics. The young boys and herd boys use the ARVs for making nyaope (a drug concoction)," it says.
"While men perpetuate GBV at household level, with El Nino affecting household livelihoods, a new trend of GBV perpetuated by women has emerged where men are denied food and conjugal rights."
On the availability, access and quality of GBV response services, most respondents said health services, psycho-social services, police, and legal services were available for prevention and response to GBV.
In her remarks at the launch of the report, UNFPA Country Representative Nuzhat Ehsan said her agency's main focus was on the drought's effect on GBV among women, adolescent girls and other vulnerable groups.
"Drought linked GBV has not been studied before and it was the first ever baseline survey linking drought and GBV in Lesotho. UNFPA also engaged women and girls in discussions on sexual and reproductive health under this initiative and learnt that women and girls experience different forms of GBV but they rarely report it," Ms Ehsan said, adding that 38 percent of respondents said that survivors didn't bother to report while 36.7 percent felt nothing would be done even if they reported.
Commending the Ministry of Gender and Youth, Sport and Recreation for its support during the project, she said a number of actions needed to be taken at both policy and community level.
"For example, there is an urgent need to implement the referral system for GBV with participation of all actors including judiciary, health and law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organisations and social workers," Ms Ehsan said. "Similarly, there are still negative social norms and harmful traditional practices that perpetuate gender inequality and promote GBV.
"For example, some of the men we trained during the trainings on male engagement for GBV prevention said some songs that are sung during initiations that are derogatory to women and promote GBV. There is need for change."
The ministry's Director, 'Matau Futho-Letsatsi, said Lesotho was making progress in GBV which was evidenced by the changing cultural norms and values.
She said the ministry was working together with the church to tackle GBV after realising that the Christianity was being used to perpetuate violence against women and girls, "yet the same holy book can be used to empower women and girls".
For her part, World Health Organisation Representative Cornelia Atsyor said the report was an important tool that policy makers, development agencies and GBV programmers could use for advocacy, policy development and comprehensive GBV programming.
"Other than the baseline, we supported and developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Referral Pathway to strengthen coordination and GBV service delivery. However, there is still need for more effort to address GBV including strengthening laws and their enforcement," she said, reaffirming that the United Nations' commitment to supporting efforts that could lead to reduction of gender based violence in Lesotho.