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Tackling gender-based violence during lockdown

- William Gumede

Women and children face even more alarming levels of abuse due to COVID-19 lockdown.

The Covid-19 emergency package of government fails glaringly to provide protective measures to save vulnerable women and children from violence and abuse during the lockdown and the follow-on lockdown.

The lockdown may have been effective so far in slowing the spread of Covid-19, but confining people to homes raise the specter of all ready alarming levels of violence and abuse against women and children, to explode to terrifying levels.  

South Africa already has among the highest levels of violence and abuse against women and children per capita outside war zones.

The “cabin fever” phenomenon, whereby long isolation leads to fear, anxiety and a sense of powerlessness could increase the incidents of violence against women and children.

In addition, the Covid-19 related economic downturn, business closures and looming unemployment, increasing fear, stress and anxiety and stress, which can often result in men taking out their frustrations against women and children.

Moreover, because of inequality, most men are still the major or only income earners, which means abused partners are often financially dependent on their abusers. 

The movements of vulnerable women and children during the lockdown are restricted, like everyone else, so they cannot easily leave violent or abuse households or seek help. The restrictions of movement during the lockdown also constrains the reach of civil society organisations dedicated to fight violence and abuse against women and children.

Sadly, the army and the police, 26 years since the end of apartheid are still stunningly poorly trained, sensitized or emphatic to deal with violence against women and children.  In fact, many of their members often perpetrators of violence and abuse against women not only within their own ranks, but against the very same vulnerable women and children they are supposed to protect.

Incidents of domestic violence and abuse in many other countries have also dramatically increased during lockdowns.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a video message posted on Twitter this week warned about a “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence during the Covid-19 crisis.  “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners,” he said.

The South African Police Services said it had received 87 000 gender-based violence calls during the first week of the lockdown.

The French government this week for example approached hotels to have women victims of violence to stay in vacant and for the state to pay for it during their Covid-19 lockdown. Some countries have created pop-up counselling centres at retail stores, pharmacies and other essential service points for women who are experiencing violence and abuse.

The UK this week released a £750million Covid-19 emergency funding package for charities and civil society organisations, including those work with women and children victims of domestic violence and abuse. Australia released US$100million for support services to combat Covid-19 related domestic violence and abuse.

Brazil, like South Africa, has high levels of gender inequality and gender-based violence, has given women money directly, to empower them, by providing a basic income grant of US$125 over three months over the period of their lockdown. India, another developing country with high levels of gender inequality and gender-based violence has paid cash amounts to vulnerable women with bank accounts who are already linked to a government backed financial inclusion programme to empower them; and food parcels are directly given to women.

In South Africa, the police and army patrolling the streets to enforce lockdown must be given instructions to listen to women and children complaining about abuse. Off course, it goes without saying the police and the army should not themselves be perpetrators of violence and abuse against women and children. Prosecution of perpetrators of violence and abuse against women must be swift; with special courts set up if necessary.

Retailers, pharmacies and other essential services could serve as pop-up counselling centres. Funds must also be set aside to support victims of violence and abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown period. As part of the emergency economic measures, civil society organisations dealing with abuse against women and children should get special funding during the lockdown to continue what they do. Food vouchers that can be used at retail stores or food parcels which can be distributed by the army, must be given to all those in need. A basic income grant to all indigent will make them less dependent on men during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Hotlines, shelters and legal assistance for victims of gender-based violence must not only remain open, but should be generously resourced. Individuals who can, must volunteer to help at hotlines and shelters and provide financial, legal and accommodation assistance. Telecommunications companies such as Telkom, Vodacom and MTN, could make a simple key or function available on mobile phone platforms, similar to if one wants to dial for airtime or data, which serves as free hotline to report violence and abuse against women and children.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the Sunday Times.