A call to action: GBV in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Gender based violence is a long standing global problem which can be experienced by any individual. It is rooted in gender inequality and includes any physical, mental or social abuse which is directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex such as rape, attempted rape, domestic violence, emotional abuse, harmful cultural practices and early or forced marriages. GBV is violence that occurs based on gender roles, responsibilities, privileges, opportunities, expectations and limitations among other factors, which adversely affects women and girls more frequently than their male counterparts. As such, the importance of protecting women and girls from all forms of gender based violence cannot be understated, as it is a violation of their fundamental human rights.

This year has been the most difficult worldwide due to the COVID 19 pandemic which had far reaching effects on the general populace socially, economically and healthwise. Studies have shown that pandemics or emergencies often pose increased risks of abuse, exploitation and violence against the vulnerable. Pandemics exacerbate  existing threats and vulnerabilities while undermining protection mechanisms which are impaired by the emergency and measures put in place to contain pandemics. Zimbabwe experienced an increase in the number of gender based violence  cases  from the time that  the country introduced  measures to  contain the  COVID 19 pandemic. The measures introduced in Zimbabwe included lockdowns which essentially meant that people were confined in their homes and most service providers could not provide services that people make use of on a day to day basis.

Whilst the lockdown restrictions were intended to prevent widespread infection, it adversely increased the vulnerability of women and girls to violence. Some survivors of gender based violence were trapped with their abusers as they were confined to their homes with limited personal movement. Many people lost their jobs and those in the informal sector could not earn a living during the lockdown period. The financial constrains stirred conflicts in several households resulting in violence while some girls were subjected to forced early marriages and prostitution to escape the economic frustrations in their families. As we recognise the importance of protecting women and girls from violence during the 16 days of Activism against gender based violence campaign, Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) would like to commend various actors in Zimbabwe such as the government, civic society, community leaders and individual citizens for working towards the enactment of various legal frameworks with the aim of protecting the vulnerable from violence and abuse. Of importance to note is the Constitution of Zimbabwe which can be regarded as progressive in that it recognises the equality of all persons and even prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex. The Domestic Violence Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act also enables survivors of gender based violence to access justice and protection from violence.

In most emergencies, timely interventions to protect women and girls from abuse and violence save lives but are more often than not overlooked and under-funded. During the lockdown period the LRF put in place various measures to enable survivors of gender based violence to access essential services. Among the response mechanisms employed by the LRF were the digital messages on GBV which were disseminated through social media, legal education sessions dissemeniated through whatsapp, webinars, online dialogues, the chat bot, radio programmes as well as acting as a referral pathway to psycho social support and medical services where  victims of GBV would get comprehensive assistance and timely referral to the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and the Victim Friendly Units (VFU).

However, despite the existence of progressive legal frameworks and reporting platforms, enforcement remains a challenge especially in the face of the current pandemic as some survivors could not safely access essential services such as reporting platforms. Observations made during the pandemic show that lack of coherent and consistent response platforms can be discouraging for people seeking assistance through the legal system. In Zimbabwe some cases of gender based violence went unreported due to the closure of courts during the first phase of the lockdwon period. Inadequate transport services also negatively affected survivors of GBV’s access to multisectoral services including health services and psychosocial support. As a result, some survivors of GBV fell pregnant and contracted sexually transmitted diseases because they could not access health services within 72 hours of the abuse.

In essence, the COVID 19 pandemic threatens to negatively affect the progress achieved over the years in combatting gender based violence. Most resources have been directed towards fighting the pandemic creating a resource gap in key areas such as GBV service provision . This has left the most vulnerable women and girls exposed to the pre-exisiting gender based violence pandemic. This can only be avoided if all stakeholders acknowledge that the impact of gender based violence is far reaching both for the survivors and the society at large so that there are concerted efforts in the fight against gender based violence. Prevention and response to gender based violence is directly linked to the protection of human rights particularly  equality for all human beings. Thus gender based violence cannot be addressed without also addressing some social factors because its root cause lies in the society’s attitude and practices of gender discrimination.

LRF joins the rest of the world in commemorating the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign and calls upon every citizen of Zimbabwe to make a difference by ensuring the safety and protection of women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence. Let us all come together to FUND essential services that address gender-based violence, RESPOND  to cases of gender-based violence against women and girls, PREVENT gender-based violence against women and girls and COLLECT  data which is key for developing strategies that will address GBV. LRF is committed to providing legal assistance to survivors of gender-based violence across the country and raises awareness on the laws that protect women and girls from GBV.

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