Rwanda: COVID-19 Threatens to Thwart Progress to End Gender-Based Violence

(file photo)

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to derail progress made towards ending gender-based violence (GBV) that especially women experience in Rwanda and across the world, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says.

In Rwanda, 4 in 10 women and 2 in 10 men aged 15-49 years report having experienced emotional, physical, or sexual violence from their spouse, the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey shows.

Inequitable gender norms and social norms that condone violence against women put girls at greater risk of unintended pregnancy.

Young girls in Rwanda bear the brunt of sexual violence compared to their male counterparts.

The percentage of girls aged 15-19 who ever experienced sexual violence is 14.5 per cent when that of boys of the same age is 2.8 per cent.

The number rises sharply among girls aged 20-24 to reach 25.3 per cent, compared to 8.3 per cent for boys.

The pandemic could make this worse, as it disrupts efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 globally, UNFPA's latest report indicates.

The number of women unable to access family planning, facing unintended pregnancies, gender-based violence are other harmful practices that could skyrocket in the months ahead.

As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, GBV is increasing exponentially.

Gender-based violence has taken centre stage of the conversations as the world marks the World Population Day, which was officially celebrated on Saturday, July 11.

It was marked under the theme, "Putting the Brakes on Covid-19: How to Safeguard the Health and Rights of Women and Girls Now?"

In Rwanda, it was marked under the theme, "The health of Women and Girls matters: let us join efforts to end GBV and teenage pregnancy that undermine gender equality in Rwanda."

Mark Bryan Schreiner, UNFPA Representative to Rwanda said ending the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence is essential.

"On this World Population Day, we call attention to the vulnerabilities and needs of women and girls during the Covid-19 crisis," he said.

Schreiner commended Rwanda's efforts to assess continuity of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services under the Covid-19 response, saying the country leveraged strong community platforms to promote SRH services.

Addressing GBV

Sexual violence puts women and girls at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy and warrants targeted interventions.

UNFPA asserts that many women are being forced to 'lockdown' at home with their abusers. At the same time services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible.

"Evidence from prior outbreaks shows that the crisis could exact a massive toll on women and girls," it said in its recent report, State of World Population Report launched on June 30, 2020

Women are disproportionately represented in the health and social services sectors, increasing their risk of exposure to the disease.

Stress, limited mobility and livelihood disruptions also increase women's and girls' vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation.

If health systems redirect resources away from SRH services, UNFPA experts argue that women's access to family planning, antenatal care and other critical services could suffer.

With the disruption of schools, routine health services and community-level centers, new ways of providing information and support to adolescents and young people for SRHR urgently need to be established.

"Positive public messaging around gender equality and challenging gender stereotypes can reduce the risk of violence. And in this, men and boys can and must be key allies and champions," Schreiner noted.

UNFPA has joined hands with partners across Rwanda in a two-week campaign to raise awareness on the importance of ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially for women and girls.

The campaign, focused on defying GBV and teenage pregnancy, kicked-off with the launch of UNFPA's global flagship report the State of the World Population 2020 on June 30.

The campaign engaged the general public in Rwanda, and youth in particular, through series of virtual webinars, social media outreach, and public media events on radio and television across the country, culminating in the celebration of World Population Day.

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