When economies slow down and there is a surge in unemployment stemming from the COVID-19 lockdowns violence against women is likely to increase due to pandemic-related stress writes Dr Lentsu Nchabeleng

Although the global lockdowns have been considered as one of the effective measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the unprecedented crisis unfolds in the context of many pre-existing socio-economic challenges that spark diverse forms of violence.

Poverty- related stress and economic insecurity has been linked to negative coping strategies such as substance abuse, which is a trigger for violence[i]. When economies slow down and there is a surge in unemployment stemming from the COVID-19 lockdowns, violence against women is likely to increase due to pandemic-related stress.

The lockdowns implemented have disrupted the social and economic networks of many women particularly those in resource limited settings.

It is no secret that the rates of violence against women and girls in South Africa are unacceptability high. The rate of violence against girls and young women in South Africa has been said to be comparable to the sexual violence rates of countries in conflict.

Violence against women and girls is a significant societal and public health problem in South Africa. Although the Criminal Law Amendment Act No.32 of 2007 provides a legal framework for responding to violence against girls and young women, incidents of sexual and gender-based violence remains high.

The narratives of sexual and gender-based violence are informed by patriarchal discourses which continue to reinforce gendered relations of power. As communities around the world are ordered to maintain lockdown regulations, many girls and young women are stuck with their abusers at home. Thus, this calls for new innovative ways to prevent and address violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Non-tech options should be prioritised particularly for girls and young women in resource-limited settings. These may include using an object (coloured scarf/cloth) or code to signal a request for assistance. Non-governmental organisations and the local police should be trained to lookout for these signs.

Many women around the world face restriction or have no access to information and services about their reproductive health and rights. This is true for women living in resource limited settings where barriers to their sexual and reproductive health and rights include poverty, discrimination, entrenched traditions and restrictive laws.

The status of women on sexual and reproductive health is staggering-214 million women in developing regions do not have access to contraception and it is estimated that 800 women die daily due to preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth[ii].

In South Africa, women and girls continue to bear the burden of HIV infection due to biological factors that makes them vulnerable to the HIV epidemic. For example, many women who are in inter-generational relationships lack the ability to convince or to negotiate condom usage with their sexual partners[iii]. Although consistent condom usage is considered a key component of HIV prevention efforts, the world could be facing condom shortage due to COVID-19 precautionary shutdowns.

The United Nations data reveals that COVID-19 could lead to millions of unintended pregnancies as health services faces major disruptions due to ongoing lockdowns[iv]. The COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on women and girls as health facilities are overcrowded and offer little services that they require. This threatens the progress in fighting HIV and AIDS and improving health services for women across the country. In a country like South Africa where inequality runs rampant, the COVID-19 pandemic deepens the inequalities that many women and girls face such as gender-based violence, poverty, HIV and other reproductive health issues.

Increase in sexual and gender-based violence

Although the precautionary measures put in place to flatten the COVID-19 curve are necessary, life under lockdown continue to be unbearable for many women and girls who are stuck with their abusers. Since the beginning of the national lockdown, the South African Police Service (SAPS) received more than 2320 complaints of gender-based violence in the first week alone, with only 148 charges laid[v].

Gender-based violence is the most extreme expression of gender disparity in society. This shows that gender-based violence in South Africa remains a common problem that is normalized and shrouded in a culture of silence.

The silence around gender-based violence continues to undermine the health, dignity and autonomy of victims and survivors of gender-based violence. Drawing on the data from SAPS, it is evident that a holistic approach is needed to address structural vulnerabilities of women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes identifying constraints on the health services and encouraging multiple-month prescriptions of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), antiretroviral treatment (ART) and easy access to post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). A one-stop mobile clinic should be provided in resource-limited settings for women to access sexual reproductive services including family planning, HIV testing and safe abortion.

Organizations working with victims and survivors of gender-based violence should be equipped to meet the needs of the victims and provide socio-economic empowerment. More innovative ways of reporting gender-based violence should be pursued. For example, a code word can be used to signal neighbors and other stakeholders without alerting the perpetrator.

Women’s ability to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services is a fundamental human right. Thus, these efforts can help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 and 5 during the COVID-19 pandemic, which assert to ensure healthy lives and promotes well-being for all at all ages and to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.

[i] http://opiniojuris.org/2020/04/23/gender-based-violence-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-and-economic-social-and-cultural-rights/

[ii] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/family-planning-contraception

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4506252/

[iv] https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1062742

[v] https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Local/Greytown-Gazette/increase-in-gender-based-violence-during-covid-19-20200421

Dr Lentsu Nchabeleng academic qualifications :PhD (2018, Durban University of Technology); MA (2020, University of KwaZulu-Natal-Natal); MTech (2013, Durban University of Technology); BA Cons (2016, University of KwaZulu-Natal-Natal); BTech (2009, Cape Peninsula University of Technology); Diploma (2008, Durban University of Technology)

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