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Covid-19: The fight to protect human rights must include considerations for GBV


Nkateko Chauke is the programme manager of OSF-SA’s Research and Advocacy Unit. She writes in her own capacity.

As South Africa puts in place measures to curtail the spread of Covid-19, the direct relationship between a pandemic and rising levels of gender-based violence cannot be overlooked.

South Africa is riddled with the triple challenge of cyclical poverty, inequality and unemployment. This is coupled with socio-economic ills that continue to weigh on the country’s social fabric. Threats to the country’s democracy have also resulted in unprecedented pressures on the national fiscus with implications for the fair allocation of the national budget to respond effectively to pressing needs as evidenced by the growing number of reported cases of Covid-19 in South Africa and the dwindling state of the country’s healthcare system.

The global spread of the virus has been astonishing over the past few months. Various experts have varying interpretations of the causes of the virus, its impact on populations and the nature of its spread. We have witnessed the virus rapidly spreading through Asia, Oceania, Europe, America and Africa. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic due to the rapid increase in the number of cases, emphasising the need for countries to balance the right efforts “in protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption and respecting human rights”.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), there are a total of 202 confirmed cases in South Africa as at 20 March 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a National State of Disaster as prescribed by the National Disaster Management Act. As South Africa faces insurmountable challenges to address its social and economic problems, concerns around the alarming incidence rates of gender-based violence (GBV) in the wake of opportunistic and life-threatening virus outbreaks cannot be overlooked. Moreover, the direct relationship between a pandemic and rising levels of GBV is of grave concern as governments prepare their responses to Covid-19.

While epidemics have an adverse effect on the health of affected populations, these outbreaks also affect the basic livelihoods of people. The epidemic Ebola virus disease that plagued West Africa since 2013 is one example. A research study by Oxfam International found that during the protracted crisis, households faced severe financial pressures as a result of job cuts, women not being able to generate income from their livelihood sources or through community-based lending facilities and the increased care burden at home. As a result, women and girls bore a greater burden in the household, coupled with stigmatisation and discrimination which contributed to the increased levels of sexual and gender-based violence.

In view of the threats to humanity, more especially women and girls, the global community must recognise the importance of prioritising women’s needs and leadership to strengthen and support co-ordinated responses to Covid-19. 

According to the UN Women “Gender equity in the health workforce” report, 70% of healthcare workers are women, who also provide care in the household. This consequently puts them at higher risk of contracting the virus. Moreover, global statistics reveal that the majority of women work in the informal economy, with limited to non-existent health insurance. This means that marginalised populations have limited access to rapid testing and preventative measures as prescribed by WHO guidelines. 

Women are the population group most affected by the dire economic consequences of Covid-19. It is paramount that the South African government’s response to the pandemic takes into consideration implications for women and girls.

The South African government has put in place measures that are focused on containing the outbreak, including closures of schools, implementation of remote working policies, and domestic and international travel restrictions, among others. While we recognise this as a progressive and responsive step, it is important to note that interventions should also focus on prevention and ensuring that the healthcare system is adequately equipped to respond to the growing demand of access to healthcare services as well as ensuring equal access to marginalised populations which include migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Within this context, the philanthropic community has a very crucial role to play in protecting human rights. Recently, the Open Society Foundations announced their commitment to taking proactive action in support of its grantees’ and partners’ efforts to effectively respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, specifically on countering populist responses to Covid-19, protecting migrants and refugees, assisting low-wage workers and those in the informal and gig economy who are at greater risk of infection and subsequent economic pressures, and ensuring access to rapid testing, vaccines and therapeutics.

As Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA), we affirm our commitment and support to our grantees and emphasise that the fight against the spread and prevention of Covid-19 cannot be executed in isolation. This requires concerted efforts from the government, civil society and the business community to ensure that the right to equality, dignity, life, access to quality healthcare and an environment that is not harmful to any person’s health or well-being is preserved, and protected as enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

More importantly, reducing the number of infections will require a behavioural change to protect ourselves and others. This includes being cognisant of the economic consequences that are associated with the outbreak, the negative impact and strain that this poses on individuals and families, the vulnerabilities that result as a consequence of frustration and fear that women and girls suffer most from behind closed doors, and to ensure that society is sensitised to have a deeper appreciation of humanity during this very challenging time. 

The reaction of South Africa’s civil society organisations and measures that have been put in place is encouraging. However, it is time that we think beyond ourselves and our spaces by considering what we can do to help others who may not be as privileged as we are. DM


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