AS the globe continue to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, did we take the issue of women and girls abuse for granted?
Did we think how the victims of gender-based violence (GBV) would have access to services during the lockdowns? Did we evaluate our systems to ascertain its robustness in relation to citizen’s ease in reporting incidence of GBV?
Were citizens made aware of the available mechanisms in place during this pandemic to report GBV cases? With a lot of questions than answers, it is fair to say that there was limited preparedness and planning in handling and addressing GBV cases during this pandemic.
As a result, the effort of making sure women and girls are free from any form of violence has been rendered meaningless by the Covid-19 hence pulling us back from the realisation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPfA), as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The outbreak of Covid-19 in the world and its subsequent restrictions such as lockdown and curfew among others has exposed how weak and fragile our systems are, as far as the protection of women and girls is concerned.
Covid-19 is affecting women and girls differently from men and boys, as the world witnesses a tremendous increase in the cases of Gender-Based Violence.
Organisations such as UN Women and UNFPA have projected that if the lockdown and other restrictions persist for a longer period we should expect an increase, in the millions, of cases of violence against women and girls, from the family to the community level.
The violence arising against women and girls include physical violence, sexual violence, economic discrimination and an increase in unpaid care work at home.
It has been reported by media outlets from different parts of the world of instances where women are abused at the family level by their male partners and close relatives, whilst girls are married off at their teenage years resulting in an increase in the cases of teenage pregnancy.
Also, some families took advantage of the lockdown to force their girl children into the barbaric act of Female Genital Mutilation against their free will. All of these are affecting women’s development but also robbing away the chance of girls to grow, learn and succeed in the community.
If these issues are not addressed, we will have communities whereby men and boys continue to wield power and control over resources, to the detriment of women and girls and the development of the community at large.
The year 2020 marks twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platforms for Action (BDPfA) which is the blueprint of action in placing women and girls at the core of community development.
During this year world leaders, members of the Civil Societies Organisations and other stakeholders were scheduled to meet to evaluate the milestones achieved in the implementation of the 12 critical areas of the BDPfA, the gaps to be filled and action points for the next five years.
However, the outbreak of Covid-19 has provided a clear picture of where the world community should focus in ensuring the timely realisation of gender equality at all levels.
The consequences of Covid-19 to women and girls is a wakeup call that women and girls will never be safe during the outbreak of crises in the community, hence immediate actions are needed to evaluate and strengthen our systems in the prevention and supporting victims of violence instead of focusing on addressing GBV occasionally when they happen in the community.
It is evident that prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 many countries around the globe, if not all of them, have put in place a proper system for reporting and addressing all forms of Violence Against women and girls from the community.
For instance, is the Police Gender Desks established in most of the police stations with the role of receiving and determining all Gender Based Violence cases. Also in some countries they are using the Local Government Offices and the established Mother and Child Protection Committees for that purpose.
All these systems were well supported and functioning before the outbreak of the Covid-19. However, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 and its restrictions as mentioned above, we have seen significant resources and attention directed in addressing the Covid-19 cases by making sure the health facilities are functioning well, and also having special isolation centres for persons with advanced symptoms.
While this was perfectly strategized and executed, not enough thought was given to designing and implementing a contingency mechanism of addressing the recurring GBV cases from the families and community level and how the victims will be supported, bearing in mind the imposed Covid-19 restrictions.
This is despite the fact that this challenge (GBV incidences) were contemplated or ought to be foreseen by our leaders who are torchbearers in making sure the safety of women and girls is guaranteed all the time.
Lack of contingency plan for addressing GBV cases during the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in hundreds of girls whose dreams of becoming game changers being blown away by teenage pregnancy and child marriage.
Girls whose dignity has been destroyed by Female Genital Mutilation and a number of women whose chance to be key stakeholders in the development of their families, community and countries at large has been taken away by physical violence and economic dependence on men which makes women more vulnerable.
We still have time to redeem ourselves by ensuring that women and girls’ well-being and protection are placed at the center of Covid-19 response and beyond. This can be possible through the following mechanisms; It is high time leaders took gender equality as seriously as other development agenda.
Gender equality cannot be postponed or taken for granted during any situation whatsoever. Gender equality matters all year round; Whether rain or shine, or in happiness or in sorrow.
We should not take our eyes off the goal of achieving gender equality at any moment if we want to see the community with sustainable development. Gender equality and women rights should highly be prioritised at home. Home should be a safety net for women and girls.
This should start by raising men and boys who are aware of the importance of gender equality to the development of their families and community at large, and that, the achievement of gender equality is one of the key preconditions for the development of our families.
As mentioned before, the time is now to shift our focus in building and strengthening our systems to prevent and support the victims of GBV before, during and after crisis at all levels, instead of focusing on addressing GBV cases when they arise.
By doing so, we will ensure women and girls are well protected at all times and that, their rights and opportunities are well guaranteed as men and boys.
Moreover, development agencies, civil societies organisations, governments should, now more than ever, capitalise on the youth demographic dividends by investing in programs which will enhance their knowledge and skills on gender equality and women’s rights as a whole.
This will prepare a younger generation that is well-equipped to sustain fight for and achieve gender equality and whose mission is to safeguard the interest of women and girls from the family to the community level. Furthermore, countries should invest in the facilities to provide protection to the victims of the GBV.
It is undisputed that the majority of the victims of abuse are still staying with the people who abused them. That increases the likelihood of second abuse. It is proper for countries to provide shelter, food and other general welfare since it will be difficult to be released to be with abusers.
At the community level, education should be intensified in the language of those areas. During this pandemic, this can be done through non-physical means such as community radio in making sure no one is left behind in ensuring the well-being and safety of women and girls is protected.
I wish to reiterate that without clear and strong systems in place to support and protect women and girls before, during and after the crisis, it will take us ages to realize greater equality. Its consequences will not only affect women and girls’ development but also, the community and countries at large.
We should understand that gender equality is not an issue of women and girls themselves, it is an agenda for the whole community because all of us benefit when women and girls enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men and boys.
● The writer is a feminist and gender equality champion working for Restless Development. He is also a member of Global Beijing+ 25 Youth Task Force under UN Women.