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Annual 16 Days of Activism: Covid pandemic pushes abused women and children deeper into crisis

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Valentin Tapsoba is the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Bureau Director for southern Africa.

Gender-based violence does not just occur during conflicts, in overcrowded camps or in marginalised communities. It is perpetrated by men and boys around the world – with impunity. They have to be part of the solution to fight violence against women.

When crises strike, violence against women – especially intimate partner violence – tends to increase. The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this predicament. Pandemic-control measures have left women, including refugees and those displaced, isolated and even more heavily burdened by family responsibilities, and have limited their access to help and services, including reproductive health.

Unintended pregnancies could rise by as much as 7 million worldwide, while, as economies shut down, a little known and damaging consequence of the pandemic is a spike in child marriages globally. Refugee and displaced women working in the informal sector have also been most harshly affected by the economic downturn and movement restrictions.

In refugee communities in southern Africa, the UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency, has supported water, sanitation and health services, provided information to avoid contagion in crowded camps and ensured support for women and other vulnerable refugees, especially children, continued. All work by the UN Refugee Agency had to be adapted to the new context created by Covid-19.

As we mark the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from 25 November to 10 December, I want to reflect on the past months: did we do enough during the pandemic to sustain and strengthen our efforts to ensure women and girls are safe and thriving?

As a humanitarian and protection agency, has our work contributed to changing harmful social norms and gender inequalities to prepare future generations to be change promoters?

What can a humanitarian, rights-based organisation do differently to support countries to address challenges such as gender-based violence and femicide, which President Cyril Ramaphosa calls the second pandemic?

Statistics on women and girls who have survived gender-based violence do not always reflect the crude reality. In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls in areas of conflict, especially in the east of the country, are forced to endure brutal acts of sexual violence, sometimes as a deliberate tactic of war. With the increased number of violent attacks on displaced civilians by armed groups in 2020, women and girls remain among those most at risk. Between January and September 2020, more than 6,200 gender-based violence cases were recorded across the country, with 95% of the victims being women and girls, according to Protection Monitoring reports compiled by the UNHCR and UN/interagency sources.

In South Africa, where refugees and asylum seekers live in cities and local communities, more than 120,000 people, including refugee women, called the national helpline for abused women and children during the first three weeks of lockdown in March 2020 – double the usual number of calls.

In Zambia, where most refugees live in camps, incidents of gender-based violence remained constant, most of them involving psychological and emotional abuse.

In Malawi, as in most countries in the region, mediation involving community leaders and family to solve violence within the family is still used in lieu of the judicial system. This prevents women and girl survivors of gender-based violence from receiving the dignified, fair and empowering attention they are entitled to.

In Mozambique, a new displacement emergency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado is exposing women once again to terror, kidnapping and sexual abuse. “The men who attack us are like scary monsters; they want to hurt us and exterminate us,” says Ahwage, a young displaced woman.

As the UNHCR, we work with forcibly displaced communities that live with a disproportionate amount of uncertainty and trauma. The consequences of human violence affect each person we try to help. One thought is with me constantly: gender-based violence does not just occur during conflicts, in overcrowded camps or in marginalised communities. It is perpetrated by men and boys around the world, men and boys of all backgrounds. And it is done with impunity. Men and boys have to be included in the solution to fight violence against women.

In Zimbabwe’s Tongogara refugee camp, a project is engaging them in community dialogues: traditional and religious leaders, young people and ordinary community members all pledge to build a violence-free community in and outside of the camp.   

The solution to gender-based violence in homes, villages and streets is in our hands. As humanitarian organisation workers and as individuals, we can all make a huge difference to the future of our daughters and boys: by supporting justice for all women and girls with strengthened judicial systems and sensitive, aware law enforcement workers; by promoting actions involving the whole society to eradicate gender inequalities and harmful norms; and by funding mental health services that provide healing.

As a father, husband and manager, I cannot accept the level of violence that regularly occurs around us. My anger keeps me wanting to do more, never to give up. Violence based on gender, violence towards women and girls, is a crime against our common humanity and we must face it head-on: talking, raising awareness, addressing it, until it is over.

As poet Maya Angelou said: “You talk it. Never stop talking it.” This time around, during the 16 Days of Activism, talk to someone about gender-based violence, see what you can do to heal this world a little bit. DM

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