Last week, a virtual meeting about ‘Women in Africa’s Great Lakes region’ was convened by the United Nations Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region in order to take steps to advance the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and the fight against COVID-19.
The agenda is a United Nation’s initiative to increase effective participation of women in peace making and conflict prevention.
During the meeting, ways in which to mobilise regional and international support to advance the agenda, especially in the context of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, were discussed.
Participants who included notable leaders from the region, high level representatives of international organisations including the African Union, UN Women among others had their focus on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls.
They highlighted how the pandemic has had effects on women, particularly those operating in the small scale, informal and transboundary trade. This they said has left women in a precarious situation.
Nene Bah, a senior gender adviser at the office of the special envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region, says that the pandemic is having a devastating economic impact on women who work in the small scale and informal context.
She notes that due to a number of factors, women entrepreneurs are concerned that they will be unable to resume their activities soon.
The economic impact of COVID-19 resulting from the widespread closure of businesses and industries puts increased financial strain on communities, particularly in segments of the population that are already vulnerable.
Women disproportionately work in insecure, lower-paid, part-time and informal employment, with little or no income security and social protection, such as health insurance – and are, therefore, less protected from economic recession in times of crisis, this is according to a UN Women report on COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls.
The case with violence
Information from UN Women indicates that 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months.
The number is likely to increase as security, health and money worries heighten tension, and strains are accentuated by cramped and confined living conditions.
Bah highlights that domestic and gender-based violence have increased due to confinements and restrictions of movements, and the responsibility for supporting families increasingly left at the hands of women.
Anastase Ndagijimana, a feminist and human rights activist, says the existing crisis of violence against women is likely to worsen, because women may find it hard to access support and help from health care professionals who are occupied with dealing with coronavirus.
He also notes that the socio-economic inequalities caused by the pandemic will place the most vulnerable groups of women at an even higher risk of violence.
Gender activist Iréné Mizero says notes that women with abusive partners are prone to more insult and violence now that people are spending most of their time at home.
“Some women and girls who are unable to provide for themselves in this time can easily be lured with money and fall prey to abuse, or worse, encounter child defilement,” he says.
He also notes that, as with most people, times like these can cause mental stress and that women are not excluded.
“Many have been subjected to job loss, psychologists indicate that experiencing such in unexpected ways can cause mental health issues, this does not exclude women.”
The gender activist also reveals that as much as women were burdened with unpaid care work, this is bound to worsen with the current situation.
“In addition to domestic work, women were added responsibilities like home-schooling their children now that schools are closed.”
What needs to be done?
As a way of addressing these challenges, participants recommended targeted mitigating measures to support vulnerable women in order to sustain the recent gains made in the fight for women empowerment.
They advised strengthening partnership between civil society organisations through the provision of funding streams, to women grassroots organisations to promote sensitisation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Great Lakes region, Huang Xia stressed the need to re-invigorate advocacy for women, especially for participation in policy making and implementation processes, as well as in the rebuilding of economies.
As members of the advisory board, Xia stressed that they must redouble their efforts to stimulate advocacy actions at local, national and regional levels to form a common front, not only for prevention and protection, but also for a socio-economic transformation which he says will take into account the priorities of women and girls in all countries of the Great Lakes region.
“I emphasise that reinforcing solidarity with women at the grassroots level, especially those significantly affected by the pandemic, would be vital at this time, as part of the overall strategy to address domestic and gender-based violence,” he says.
In terms of unpaid care work, Mizero says families need to stand together at a time like this by working together and strive to create a peaceful environment. This, he says, will prevent cases of violence.
He also adds with failed cases of violence, victims should be able to access mediation services and clinical counselling.
“Women should be economically empowered in order to financially and morally support themselves to deal with the economic crisis caused by this pandemic.”
Bah says consideration should be given to business facilitation and tax relief incentives that favour women entrepreneurs.
In regards to the fight of sexual violence, Bah believes there is need to further invest in the monitoring analysis and reporting arrangements, as well as integrating sexual gender-based violence expertise upstream in COVID-19 response planning.
She also adds that resources to respond to COVID-19 need to be prioritised and ensure that they are not diverted away from survivors. Hence, governments need to strengthen rule of law and accountability in this regard.
“There is need for access to services for survivors of sexual violence. Holistic services including medical (SRH) and psychosocial are already scarce, it is critical that as resources are prioritised to respond to COVID-19, these crucial resources are not diverted away from survivors and that they continue to be prioritised as essential lifesaving services.”Follow https://twitter.com/DonahMbabazi