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The Tragic Silence: Rising Cases of Violence Against Women and Poor Policy Response

By: Onyinyechi Okechukwu and Tariro Tandi

The year 2020 will not go in a hurry; yes, it will be off the human calendar for good but not without leaving scars of unpleasant memories of pain, poverty and losses. It will be a year notably recalled as one for which women experienced a surge in gender-based violence (GBV) at a quantum and frequency no research study could have envisaged.

The UNWomen has even referred to gender based violence as a shadow pandemic within the Covid-19 crisis. The reported cases of gender-based violence particularly, domestic violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is beyond frightening.

Report across Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown paints a gory picture of the sufferings of women in the hands of their male partners, their families and their communities.

It is not unexpected that during crisis, which requires such prolonged containment there could be high incidences of domestic violence stemming from economic pressure and other forms of sociological tension. However, the heightened dimension of the violence against women experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic took a worrying turn.

In South Africa for instance, according to Rose Gawaya, who is a gender adviser at the Social Policy Network, the government’s GBV and Femicide Command Centre recorded more than 120, 000 cases within the first three weeks of lockdown.

Looking to West Africa, Nigeria recorded about 800 reported cases in the 8 weeks of the lockdown. These were direct reports collected through systems set up by NGOs and individual efforts; there must have been more unreported incidences in rural communities where access was restricted and where economic pressure was on record high during the period.

Rising Cases of Violence Against Women and Poor Policy ResponseIn Zimbabwe, GBV during the lockdown was equated with the impact of the pandemic. It was called: “A pandemic within a pandemic” a phrase coined by Tafadzwa Meki, to describe the enormity of the widespread abuse and violence against women.

Meki is the founder of Someone Always Listens Toyou, (SALT), she said that, “the socio-economic effects of the pandemic coupled with living in the same space for a continued period of time have seen an increase in GBV case.

The mandatory lockdown has seen many victims being trapped with their abusers and not knowing where to go or how to get help during the lockdown”. In Central African Republic, a 69 percent increase in GBV has been recorded as reported in a UNDP study.

While the COVID-19 prolonged lockdown may be linked to the spike in the reported incidences of gender-based violence across Africa, it is also indicative of huge suppressed cases of violence against women not usually captured in data.

The lockdown period with its attendant economic strains and anxiety on families offered an opportunity to re-strategize the approaches and responses in tackling issues of gender-based violence. Data is good, it helps to give fair estimations but in no way can data be absolutely reliable in reporting issues of GBV, much more incidences are unreported.

One of the missing links which, Meki, Founder of Zimbabwean NGO, Someone Always Listen Toyou (SALT) copiously noted was the absence of mental health counselling for survivors of GBV but also as a preventative means, which helps to deal with anxieties and depression that many are going through during the economic meltdowns.

While African governments rallied funds for food and health essential palliatives, there were no concerted policy efforts to address the rising reports of gender-based violence resulting from the lockdown.

Basic infrastructures for emergencies such as call centre and shelter supports were missing from the COVID-19 response list of most African governments. The impact of mental or physical abuse does leave a woman shattered for the most of her life; this is worsened where there is no access to counselling and some forms of rehabilitation.

Often, financial instability which in this instance was heightened by lockdowns or set curfews, prevent victims of gender-based violence from leaving their abusers, with some choosing to suffer in silence in the hands of their abusers because of little or no option due to economic dependence.

The number of men sexually abusing their daughters also took a disturbing spike during the COVID-19 lockdown. The surge in father to daughter abuse was reported in Anambra State, South-East of Nigeria. According to a report conducted through the United Nations’ Children Fund, (UNICEF) no fewer than 80 cases of gender-based violence was recorded in the State, most of the incidences occurred with fathers sexually molesting their daughters. “The most worrisome is that some fathers raped their daughters more during the lockdown.

In most cases, father who rape their daughters threaten to kill them if they report. The problem is that many people don’t report these cases because they feel that the victims might be stigmatized.” the report noted.

Conversely, Kenya recorded an all-time high in teenage pregnancies wherein 152,000 cases were reported during the three months lockdown period, which is stated to be a 40 % increase from previous statistics. These unintended pregnancies can be directly linked to molestation and sexual violence for most girls who found themselves living in close proximity with their abusers.

The Law and The Realities of Government Policies

Rising Cases of Violence Against Women and Poor Policy ResponseThere may be many challenges to addressing gender- based violence in Africa, one of such challenges is definitely not lack of appropriate legal instruments to pursue and prosecute matters relating to infringement of the fundamental rights of the woman.

The Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration that has violence against women as one of its 12 pillars, as well as the Maputo Protocol are legal instruments capable of addressing GBV cases if adequately implemented.

Like other instruments, the Maputo Protocol have been put to test-The Maputo Protocol. Adopted on July 1, 2003 by the African Union members, the charter is a bold call to completely eliminate all forms of discriminations and violence against women in Africa.

In more specifics, Article 2 of the Maputo Protocol spelt in details on what basis the woman must not be discriminated: “Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights enshrines the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status”.

The Protocol left no ambiguity on how a woman should be treated, that instrument beyond stating its unequivocal position on the rights of the woman under almost every conceivable context compels the State to ensure full compliance. Article 18 was a call to action to State actors. It expressly urged the State to “eliminate every discrimination against women and to ensure the protection of the rights of women as stipulated on International Declarations and Conventions”.

In furtherance, the African Platform for Action and the Dakar Declaration of 1994 as well as the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995 call on all member States of the United Nations, which have made solemn commitment to implement both protocols to take concrete steps to give greater attention to the human rights of women in order to eliminate all forms of discrimination and gender-based violence against women.

With all the regional and international declarations and protocols in defense of women, why then is there an alarming proportion in escalation of right abuses and sometimes extreme violence against women? This gives credence to the saying that, ‘the law is not a panacea to all of society’s problems. Laws with no equal effort and political will to effectively implement them become white elephants.

The missing link can be found in the weak implementation and lack of investment in the requisite infrastructure; State actors are not testing the legal instruments enough, where they are, the wheels of justice is slow and ill equipped.

In many instances where the State itself constitutes the act of breach of the protocols, women groups have risen to defend and get justice. A case in point is one reported by African Women in Law. In 2009, the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) combined operations with arm-bearing security officials to harass and arrest women whom they labelled prostitutes. These women were usually extorted, raped, physically assaulted, threatened to be shot at if they resisted arrests and locked up in cells.

As usual, pressure groups, NGOs and human rights fighters made several calls for an end to such brutality against women. The agency only made promises about taking actions against the illegal activities of its officers; nothing was done until four brave women – Justina Etim, Edu Ene-Okoro, Dorothy Njemanze and Amarachi Jessyford decided to test the law, they presented their case at the ECOWAS court; it was to be another chance to develop legal precedence on gender-based violation after the 2008 landmark judgment in the case of Hadijatou Mani Koraou vs Niger in which the plaintiff won and was compensated for being subjected to slavery.

The case of the four brave women in Nigeria was another watershed in the victory of women against violent brutality. The case was filed on September 17, 2014, hearing commenced May 25, 2015 by October 12, 2017 judgment was delivered in favour of three of the women, one of the applicant’s case was ruled ‘status-barred’ because it exceeded the 3-year window for presenting a case to ECOWAS court. The court awarded the three other applicants the sum of US$16,750 each.

The court made significant statement which reflects an important lesson in engaging the instruments for the defense of the rights of women. The judgment specifically blamed the Nigerian authorities for failing to protect the rights of the plaintiffs as contained in the Maputo Declaration, citing multiple violations of several Articles of the protocol. The court judgment was a bold charge against a government agency and a victory to human rights of women. Since that landmark judgment of 2017, the Abuja Environmental Protection Board eliminated the night patrols and raid on women they tag prostitutes.

What is the significant lesson? –– The instrument for protecting the rights of women against violators of their human rights is potent when tested.

Despite the slow and laborious court proceedings, when tested on matters of gender-based violence, the law steadily takes it course. It can serve as a deterrent to violators; it can also wake the government to its responsibilities of enforcing the human rights of women as contained in the protocol and conventions which they are signatories to. It would be interesting to have women organise and take collective action against their governments for not protecting them against GBV.

A Call to Greater Action

Ironically, the year 2020 marks the 25th.anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which is meant to be a period when Governments are compelled to reflect upon their efforts to achieve gender equality.

Conversely, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a test of African governments’ preparedness to implement instruments such as the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Declaration on elimination of all forms of discrimination against women etc.

Aside from regional and international human right protocols and declarations, many African countries have local laws on protection of the rights of women and children which unfortunately have gathered dust and are rarely enforced.

The citizens too have to be aware and willing to test the laws, this will always come with a cost – legal engagements are not cheap! The four brave women who got compensated by the Abuja Environment Protection Board were supported by civil society organisations, including Alliances for Africa, Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Nigeria Women Trust Fund, the Law Firm S.P.A Ajibade with support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa, (OSIWA).

Without this coalition of support, it would have been impossible to have low income women find justice, and the potency of the instrument of human rights defense such as the Maputo declaration will not have been proven. Similarly, the increase in cases of GBV and the non-responsive systems and structures has to be strategically challenged in a bid to get recourse.

As Governments introspect and plan for recovery and rebuilding post COVID-19, they have to reflect on their international commitments to achieving gender equality.

Although there are necessary laws to fight against women’s human rights violations, there appears to be insufficient willingness to enforce such rights. Could this be because of the significantly low number of women in political leadership positions to be able to form a greater force of influence on strict compliance and implementation? Could it be a result of weak government systems in Africa? Could it be a reluctance to achieving gender equality?

There are numerous chains of questions which bottom-line must be that Governments in Africa must find the political will and the moral courage to implement and enforce international, regional and local laws protecting and promoting the rights of all women against all forms of abuse. Without this commitment, all the progress that has been made to ensure women are not regarded as second class citizens will come to naught.

 

Onyinyechi Okechukwu is a women’s rights and social justice campaigner based in Abuja, Nigeria.
 Tariro Tandi is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe focusing on women’s rights and gender non-conforming persons’ rights.

 

1 The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19, UN Women, 2020
2 South Africa: Shocking Stats on gender-based violence during lockdown revealed, Sunday Times, 1/09/2020
3 In CAR, violence against women is surging amid COVID-19 pandemic, study finds, UNDP, July, 2020.
4 Rise in Teenage Pregnancies in Kenya Linked to COVID-19 Lockdown, Global Citizen, August, 2020.
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