Activists, journalists, and the United Nations (UN) have drawn attention to a so-called shadow pandemic, an allusion to rising global levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women and girls, as a result of Covid-19 and state responses to it. Reports by global media highlight the situation in Europe, but Africa is not exempt. Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Uganda, like China, France, and Spain, are among the countries that have reported surges in violence against women and girls (VAWG) since the pandemic began. Guided by the question “what don’t we know about how pandemics affect SGBV?” this article shares insights into VAWG in several African countries and explores some possible solutions.
Numbers Alone Don’t Tell the Full Story
Kenya and Nigeria are among the countries reporting a 30–50 percent average increase in SGBV since they were locked down. This is seen as evidence that gender violence is rising partly because of state responses to Covid-19. However, reports from Canada and South Africa and a multicountry analysis by The Washington Post reveal that reporting rates have either decreased or remain the same as before Covid-19. Following the logic that SGBV increases during pandemics, these differential changes show why numbers by themselves are not incontrovertible. SGBV is consistently underreported across the world, and increased reporting may be due to improved access to support and not necessarily changes in patterns of violence. Also, the data collected by different actors are not always well synchronized, meaning that reports by single actors present only a partial view of reality. Without invalidating divergent realities from actors on the ground in different contexts, we need to collect more comprehensive, empirical data before we can decipher any global trends.
Not Just Domestic Violence
Most reports about the shadow pandemic relate to spikes in domestic violence, which is the most prevalent form of SGBV. One night in May, Amanda Basinbo’s husband attacked her with an axe, slashing her face and cracking her skull for “denying him sex.” A friend’s neighbor has had hot soup poured on her and her head bashed with a sink by her partner.1Conversation in a gender WhatsApp group. Cited with permission. She is deaf in one ear and covered in scars from the constant beatings. A Beninese trader’s husband beats her more often since he lost his job after his workplace was shut down because of Covid-19. There was also a case involving a Nigerian man who beat his wife and then posted her bloodied photos to Facebook, daring police to arrest him. The stories are endless. However, in anomic situations like pandemics, women and girls are also susceptible to other forms of violence. In March, Ugandan police caned women hawkers and traders for selling their wares during a national lockdown. Weeks later, five Rwandan soldiers were arrested for allegedly raping women in a Kigali slum while enforcing the lockdown in the country. In April 2020, three policemen beat Halima Abdulazeez as she walked to a neighborhood pharmacy to buy medication for her ailing child. Also in April, in South Africa, a man was accused of raping a young woman at a temporary shelter for homeless people during the lockdown in Strandfontein. Displaced women and girls who are displaced or living in conflict remain at heightened risk of varied VAWG.
How Pandemics Affect SGBV
In the foregoing scenarios, the link to Covid-19 is clearer than in others, which raises issues about what available data tell us about why SGBV occurs during pandemics. An April 2020 report on pathways to violence during pandemics by the Center for Global Development adduces several reasons that appear to resonate regardless of context; they include the economic strain of lockdowns, social isolation owing to the absence of regular social outlets, and exposure to exploitative relationships. Others include reduced access to sources of support, whether because these are not functioning, because resources have been diverted to resolving the pandemic, or because of restricted movement. However, these reasons neither explain violence that was already occurring before the crisis nor violence by security actors against civilian women. Such instances are more attributable to underlying cultural norms and social inequities that normalize gender violence and call into question the emergency measures being advocated as responses to Covid-19-induced SGBV. Furthermore, these explanations reflect solely the social and structural, overlooking the many multilayered factors that determine why some people resort to violence.
Assessing Responses to the Shadow Pandemic
World leaders’ earliest responses to the pandemic were rhetorical. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and his American counterpart Donald Trump compared Covid-19 to an enemy and likened fighting it to a war. However, some are questioning the use of war metaphors. They claim that it reorients state–citizen relations away from democracy toward autocracy and the militarization of society and erects rhetorical boundaries among states that defy global solidarity. For women, girls, and other vulnerable groups, pandemics and formal responses to them invite extraordinary levels of violence to their lives and bodies that is not unlike what they experience during war. Many survivors are confined with their abusers—the ostensible enemy—in what are often life-or-death situations with little hope of escape. Others are prey to abuse and exploitation as they struggle to survive in homes, streets, and markets. However, as Cynthia Enloe observes, militarist discourse overlooks the fact that there are multiple fronts in war and that people experience violence according to their positionalities. With regard to SGBV, aggressive militarized state responses to Covid-19 revictimize women and girls by compounding private and public abuse, while simultaneously denying or restricting succor by either compelling support centers to close or diverting resources to fighting the virus.
Many African states’ handling of current SGBV crises is gender blind, despite decades of women, peace, and security advocacy. The Liberian government designated the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection as nonessential, forcing it to stay closed at a difficult time in a country with already high levels of SGBV, especially against young girls. In the absence of alternative arrangements, SGBV cases are increasing in the country. Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire freed prisoners in a bid to decongest prisons, with no apparent regard to whether they had committed SGBV. Faced with rising SGBV, Nigerian activists have decried the forced closure of NGOs and other public and private resources that support abused women Activists have also contested the exclusion of women, notably Minister of Women Affairs Pauline Tallen from membership of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19. A statement by 286 women’s rights organizations called on state and federal governments to “ensure respect of women’s human rights and protection from gender-based violence.” Organizations like the Women’s Aid Collective, an important resource for abused women in southeast Nigeria, now offer support by telephone or on social media. Likewise, the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team is tracking SGBV using digital technology while urging survivors to take refuge with family or friends. Needless to say, this limits access to women who are digitally literate and can afford appropriate technology.
In Ghana, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) country office is supporting a hotline being managed by the Domestic Violence Victim Support Unit of the Ghana Police. In their individual capacities, some women opinion leaders are asking abused women to send them coded messages for support or transmission to the relevant authorities. All of these are short-term measures that may provide temporary relief but do not address the fundamental worldviews that drive SGBV.
Ebola: Lessons (un)Learned
Africa has been here before. During the Ebola crisis in 2015, outbreaks of varied gendered violence accompanied the virus’s spread across East and West Africa. Experts have documented correlations between Ebola and rises in violence against women in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, teenage girls were the worst affected by sexual abuse in quarantined homes and as they sought food to survive, resulting in a teenage pregnancy epidemic. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), some health workers reportedly asked infected women and girls for sex in exchange for treatment. If we are reliving this dark past today, we clearly have not learned our lessons well.
Conclusion: The Way Forward
It is hard to predict how the lifting of lockdowns could affect levels of SGBV. To avoid recurrences during future health crises, responses to Covid-19 ought to take a cue from cardinal principles of women, peace, and security advocacy. As Sanam Naraghi Anderlini points out, gender analysis and sensitivity can provide disaggregated data that inform targeted, gendered policy responses. Ensuring women’s participation and leadership is key to leveraging their skills and knowledge and creating inclusive and holistic approaches to pandemics and the violence that responses to them enable. Long-term measures need to address the socioeconomic and gender inequities, cultural norms, mindsets, and attitudes that feed gender-based violence. Lastly, and crucially, irrespective of context, SGBV survivors must have support and be able to access safer spaces, broader economic opportunities, and more equitable representation in decision-making.
Enloe, Cynthia. “COVID-19: ‘Waging War’ against a Virus Is NOT What We Need to Be Doing.” Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, March 23, 2020. https://www.wilpf.org/covid-19-waging-war-against-a-virus-is-not-what-we-need-to-be-doing/.
Naraghi Anderlini, Sanam. “Women Peace and Security in the Time of Corona.” LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security, March 25, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2020/03/25/women-peace-and-security-in-the-time-of-corona/.
O’Donnell, Megan, Amber Peterman, and Alina Potts. “A Gender Lens on COVID-19: Pandemics and Violence against Women and Children.” Center for Global Development, April 3, 2020. https://www.cgdev.org/blog/gender-lens-covid-19-pandemics-and-violence-against-women-and-children.
- 1Conversation in a gender WhatsApp group. Cited with permission.