Protecting Women and Girls in Sub-Saharan Africa During COVID-19

SOLUTIONS SPOTLIGHT

Editor’s Note:  At Together for Girls, we focus on data-driven solutions to prevent violence against children. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re highlighting evidence-based interventions, strategies, and resources with our “Solutions Spotlight” series.

While many children and adolescents are out of school and staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19, we know that home is not always a safe place. The data from our Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys (VACS) shows that children and adolescents often face a great risk of witnessing or experiencing violence in the home. For women as well, who are most likely to experience violence from a partner, COVID-19 lockdowns further exacerbate the risk. 

 

Now more than ever, we need solutions that tackle the pressing issues of violence against women and children. This week, we’re highlighting solutions in three of our partner countries, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, that help women and children get the help they need, during COVID-19 and beyond.

 

Click through to learn more:

In a country like Mozambique, where an estimated 22% of ever-partnered women aged 18-49 years experience intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, access to services where women and adolescents can report abuse is vital. With schools closed due to COVID-19, it’s even more essential that young people have a means of accessing information, confiding in someone, or reporting abuse.

 

For the past five years, Coalizão has been offering just that.

 

Coalizão is a non-profit that promotes sexual and reproductive health and rights among youth and adolescents across Mozambique. Since 2015, they have provided a free platform called SMS Biz that allows youth from all over Mozambique to ask questions on a variety of topics, including sexual and reproductive health, violence, and now COVID-19.  

 

“Often, adolescents cannot distinguish between sexual violence and consent, and believe that forced sex is normal,” explains Ms. Dalva Costa, SMS Biz Mentor. 

 

When SMS Biz receives a message about violence, a team of trained counsellors through the National Child Helpline contacts the user, provides support, and follows up on the case with social welfare, police, and justice services as needed.  

Through data from our VACS, we know that in Uganda, 35% of girls have experienced sexual violence prior to age 18. Fortunately, there are solutions working to prevent or respond to violence, that are persisting in the face of COVID-19.

 

One such solution is HaRT (Healing and Resilience after Trauma), an organization that, since 2016, has been using holistic methods to support women and girls in Uganda who have experienced gender-based violence and human trafficking. Through the HaRT Yoga program, participants do mindfulness exercises, yoga, and other movement activities to connect with their inner resilience, build a supportive community, and overcome the physical and emotional consequences of trauma.

 

Before COVID-19, HaRT Yoga program began undertaking a mixed-methods evaluation to assess changes in women and girls’ overall wellbeing. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, rather than stopping their work, they decided to pivot to phone-based interviews. 

 

“It is possible to build rapport and connect with participants during phone interviews. The participants were able to open up, it seems that many were yearning to talk to someone. Maybe this is partly because of the lockdown, we came in to listen at a time so many women and girls are experiencing anxiety and isolation,” explained Sylvia Namakula and Agnes Grace Nabachwa, who led the data collection. 

Before COVID-19, data showed that 37.6% of women in Zimbabwe experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Lockdowns and movement restrictions have exacerbated this risk, as some women are trapped at home with their abusers and are unable to access shelters and other services they may need. According to Spotlight Initiative, the national gender-based violence hotline has seen a 75% increase in calls since the beginning of lockdown in March. 

 

To help women and girls continue to access support during COVID-19, Musasa Project, with support from Spotlight Initiative and Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development, started a shuttle service to connect survivors of gender-based violence with the support services they need.

 

“Musasa immediately arranged a shuttle to take me to their shelter in Marange,” said Rumbidzai, a 15-year old girl who was sexually abused. “At the shelter, I met young girls who had also gone through difficult situations, but [they] were hopeful and happy despite all the trauma, which gave me hope for the future.” 

On 8 March, a child’s sandaled feet dangle off the ground, at a safe house outside Monrovia, the capital. The UNICEF-supported home, run by the Liberian NGO THINK (Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness), provides counselling, psychosocial support, basic education and vocational and life-skills training, including on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS awareness, for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. [#2 IN SEQUENCE OF TWO]

From 7 to 8 March 2009 in Liberia, women leaders and other high-level delegates from around the world gathered in Monrovia, the capital, for the International Colloquium for Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security. The meeting, held to coincide with International Women’s Day (March 8), was hosted by President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and President of Finland Tarja Halonen. UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde F. Johnson was among attendees at the Colloquium, which brought together almost 1,000 Heads of State and Government, representatives from United Nations and NGO organizations, academic institutions and civil society, young people and other participants. The creation of the Angie Brooks International Centre on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security was also announced at the meeting. The International Centre, which focuses on research, training, leadership development and advocacy, was established to implement actions emerging from the Colloquium. It is named after the late Angie Brooks, a former Permanent Representative of Liberia to the United Nations and Africa’s first woman President of the United Nations 24th General Assembly (1969).

There are actions we can all take – whether as parents, educators, or policymakers – to prevent and reduce violence.

To learn more, visit our COVID-19 resource hub

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