Africa: Triple Threat - Conflict, Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19

The first post-war class of nursing graduates at JFK Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia are facing their second health emergency.
26 April 2020

Johannesburg — The new coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2, has infected more than three million people worldwide – 31,000 in Africa by 26 April – with Egypt, South Africa, Morocco and Algeria having the most confirmed cases. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the death toll across the continent totals 1390, with 9,380 than 8300 recoveries reported.

Public health experts warn that true case numbers across the continent are far higher. Without widespread testing, for which few countries have the capacity, an accurate count is impossible.

Women and girls are at high risk for rape and sexual violence, as well as death – whether from armed conflicts, from conditions in refugee camps or from domestic violence while trapped at home with their abusers. Mandatory lockdowns have limited women's access to life-saving support, including sexual and reproductive health clinics. Deaths in childbirth, already high, are expected to climb.

The combined effect is catastrophic in countries affected by armed conflict and by humanitarian emergencies, such as the locust invasion across eastern Africa. Those fleeing from their homes to crowded camps, where physical distancing is impossible, face increased risks of illness from COVID-19.

Earnings are hit hard

The pandemic's impact on the informal sector is potentially devastating. Restrictive measures – such as limited hours in markets on alternate days and bans on the sale of non-food items in markets – disproportionately hit women, who are a majority among market sellers and other informal workers. There have been cases of police brutality against informal workers, including women, who continued to sell goods for their livelihoods.

Multiple threats to peace

"The onset of COVID-19 is hampering efforts to implement the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Great Lakes region," the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy Huang Xia told the Security Council in a 22 April videoconference. The virus, he said, is "already taking a significant economic toll on countries still working to emerge from years of conflict".

The envoy cited promising progress in Democratic Republic of Congo – where a long-running war in the eastern part of the vast nation has spilled into neighboring countries and led to the deaths of over five million people in the past decade, according to many estimates. But gains are now threatened, the envoy warned, calling for greater international support to consolidate progress towards sustainable peace.

In South Sudan, the pandemic is likely to delay the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of that country's civil war, risking a worsening of pre-existing gender inequalities, while threatening the peace process itself. Already, South Sudan hosts 1.5 million displaced persons, most of whom are living in camps.

From fragile Somalia on the east coast to Nigeria on the west, aid organizations struggle to reach hungry people in areas threatened or controlled by extremists. Tens of millions are desperately seeking food in every region, as economic distress and extreme weather fueled by climate change add to the misery of COVID-19.

"We need to pay urgent attention to the protection of refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls at the time of this pandemic," said Gillian Triggs, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. "Doors should not be left open for abusers and no help spared for women surviving abuse and violence."

The agency has warned that millions of people across 21 countries in west and central Africa are facing an accelerating humanitarian crisis. More than nine million people have been forcibly displaced.

Conflict-affected areas are often inaccessible, dangerous and beyond the reach of the state. Violations of human rights include suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, attacks on women human rights defenders, increased surveillance by the government and heavily militarised responses. All this has hampered peacebuilding efforts but has inspired new determination across Africa.

Peacebuilders at work

A Kenyan organisation called Rural Women Peace Link, which has a focus on women survivors of conflict and gender-based violence, is conducting sensitization on safe practices and hygiene through short radio messages translated to local languages and accessed by women in rural areas. The messages specifically target women at higher risk, due to their roles as primary caregivers for the sick and the elderly.

The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) is developing a COVID-19 and Women Peace and Security (WPS) database, which will document the impacts of the virus on communities affected by conflict. The network also will compile data on how COVID19 affects work on peacebuilding, on conflict prevention and on sustaining peace.

GNWP will use over 100 organizations around the world to collect accurate and up-to-date information. The database aims to encourage the development of gender-responsive and conflict-sensitive interventions on COVID-19. The WPS database aims to be a living document, continuously updated with information provided by local women and youth peacebuilders as well as with data from secondary sources.

Jessica Horn, is programme director at the African Women's Development Fund (AWDF), based in Accra, Ghana, which has given more that $40 million to local women's organizations around Africa. "Generalised catastrophe may well be the ;new normal' for the privileged," she wrote on the Fund's website, "but it has been the backdrop of African women's organising for generations."

As the virus headed towards Africa, she wrote, "AWDF grantees were already outlining a political agenda for the response, warning of possible consequences if we fail to be attentive to the fact that health crises are always gendered." The responsibility of women," she said, "is to make sure  "that the insights shared by our grantees in this pandemic moment are also setting the compass towards the structural change that needs to be prioritised once the immediate health threat is over."

Surging domestic violence

The UN Agency for refugees says the lockdowns that have led to restricted movement and reduced community interaction everywhere are significantly exacerbating the risks of intimate partner violence.

Dr. Senait Fisseha, has both law and medical degrees, and a long list of honors – including the highest award given by the Ministry of Health of Ethiopia for "profound contribution to the health sector" – and serves on the Lancet-SIGHT Commission on Peaceful Societies through Health and Gender Equality.

"We have data," she said, "both from this pandemic as well as past epidemics like Ebola, that women have an increased risk of domestic violence, especially when you have a lockdown."

Girls need education and protection from abuse to avoid early marriage, closely spaced pregnancies and elevated risks of dying young.

In South Africa, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that at least 2,230 gender-based violence cases were reported during the first week of the national lockdown, 37 percent higher than the weekly average in 2019. In a discussion on Bush Radio, Africa's oldest community broadcaster, university and institute researchers told AllAfrica's Juanita Williams that gender-based violence (GBV) often has roots in children who were abused – and, in turn, became abusers. The scholars said there are studies suggesting that violence in the home leads to higher rates of violence in communities, and even to armed conflicts.

In Zimbabwe, a surge in domestic violence in the last two weeks alone illustrates the magnitude of the problem. Between March 30 and April 9, the Musasa Project, a member of the Peacebuilding Network of Zimbabwe, which tracks and monitors conflict, says it received 764 gender-based violence reports. Musasa, the Adult Rape Clinic and Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association have opened dedicated hotlines to assist women seeking help. Veritas, another women's rights watchdog in Zimbabwe, has called on the government to respond to the rising pattern of violence within communities.

"The government should be aware of the problem of increased domestic violence during the lockdown", Veritas said. "More facilities should be made available, and more information on the problem and on where help is available should be distributed nationwide through government channels."

Kenya's Chief Justice David Maraga lamented that too many people in homes and communities, who should be taking care of young girls, instead are preying on them. “There has been a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the country in the last two weeks,” Maraga said in a video statement on 2 April. "These offenses," he said, "constitute 35.8 percent of the criminal offenses reported during this period."

Women drive global health

This pandemic has highlighted the challenges and discrimination that women everywhere face as primary care givers.

According to a World Health Organization report Delivered by Women, Led by Men –  women are the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally, making up 70 percent. Yet only 25 percent of global leaders are female.

Policy makers have a final say on where funding and research goes – both for peace and security and for health. Without women in these positions, decisions will not sufficiently address either the health crisis or the particular difficulties women face from conflict and gender-based violence.

A report by the Commission on Women's Health in the African Region, presided over by former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, concluded that while women are the majority of the healthcare workforce, their countries have under-invested in women's health.

"We need to realise that the vast majority of frontline healthcare workers across Africa and indeed across the world are women, there will be areas of its primary healthcare workers who are most at risk of exposure to the virus and should be prioritised for the provision of protective gear and equipment to prevent illness to allow them to carry out their efforts," Mark Suzman, Chief Executive Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told a group of African journalists during the foundation's announcement of $150-million more in funds to fight COVID-19.

Without more equity, the future is perilous.

"Though the data is limited at this stage, there are concerns that in social isolation or physical distancing - when people are staying at home - there are fairly strong anecdotal evidence of increases in issues like GBV which is obviously very worrying. We are trying to get better data and resources around that," Suzman said. In line with this, one of the Gates' goals for 2020 is expanding its gender equality focus.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is urging all governments to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.

The World Health Organisation recommends that governments and policy makers include and fund essential services to address violence against women in the preparedness and response plans for COVID-19. Health facilities should identify and provide information about services available locally, such as hotlines, shelters, rape crisis centers, counselling for survivors and other such measures.

"The increase in violence against women must be dealt with urgently with measures…that meet the gravity and scale of the challenge and reflect the needs of women who face multiple forms of discrimination, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former deputy president of South Africa and the Executive Director of UN Women.  "Shelters and helplines for women must be considered an essential service for every country with specific funding and broad efforts made to increase awareness about their availability."

The imperative to restructure economies

Fisseha worries that if the particular hazards of lockdowns to women and girls and the lost economic opportunities for youth are not addressed, the damage to society will be long lasting. "In Sub Saharan Africa, 50 percent of the population – in some countries 70 percent – are young people," she said.

Politicians and business leaders have described the young populations as a "demographic dividend". Financial and educational support could help that generation transform their countries. But a growing 'youth bulge' of unemployable young people trying to survive – and subject to recruitment by armed extremist groups – is not an asset, but a threat to prosperity and peace.

"How do we invest in our human capital?" asked Fisseha, who was founding executive director of the Center for International Reproductive Health Training at the University of Michigan and is a director of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

"We absolutely have the talent pool," she said. "We have incredibly bright young people. But if we don't help them delay pregnancy, prevent unintended pregnancy, keep their health, get education and get jobs, they are not going to overnight turn into a productive workforce."

This article for Nontobeko Mlambo, was originally published on 24 April. AllAfrica editors have updated it.

AllAfrica's coverage of peacebuilding issues is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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