Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is both a universal issue and a prevalent human rights violation affecting all areas of society regardless of wealth or social status with huge impact on victims/survivors and communities as a whole. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) underscore that globally about 243 million women and girls have been subjected to intimate partner violence is a common form of violence and that even during times of relative calm, about “18% of girls aged 15 to 49 years who have ever been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months”.
The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unprecedented challenge to gender equality actions engaged in by many countries around the world in general and Cameroon in particular. According to UN Women, emerging data indicates that VAWG, especially domestic violence, has been on the rise globally since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries such as France have witnessed an increase by 30% in reports of domestic violence while Cyprus and Singapore have registered an increase in helpline calls by 30% and 33% respectively. The UNFPA further indicates that in a survey carried out in Cameroon, 62% of respondents indicated that COVID-19 poses an increased risk of VAWG with the main risks being domestic violence and sex for survival.
The impact of VAWG during this COVID-19 pandemic period is substantial. The disruption of income-generating activities; the closure of schools; confinement to places with limited privacy have exposed women and girls to violence including sexual and cyber exploitation, rape and exploitation and abuse of children especially girls through harmful practices such as Child, Early and Forced Marriages (CEFM). Staying indoors has increased the vulnerability of women and girls who increasingly find themselves isolated from people and resources that could help them. Access to help and essential services also remains limited due to movement restrictions. UN Women estimates that the global cost of violence against women and girls stands at US$1.5 trillion.
While the widespread measures employed by governments around the world to curb the spread of the virus has had considerable effect, it has also exacerbated women and girls’ vulnerabilities to different forms of violence. Restrictions on movements and closure of businesses and industries has increased financial strain, particularly on vulnerable persons. Given that most women work in the informal sector, they are less protected from economic downturn in times of crisis especially as they are faced with numerous challenges including: lower-pay, part-time conditions, little or no income security or social protection (health insurance). Loss of livelihood due to job losses leads to vulnerability, exploitation, and abuse as well. This also has an impact on women and girls’ vulnerabilities to mental health issues due to the combination of VAWG trauma and the confinement measures in place.
The prevailing socio-economic disparities places most vulnerable women and girls at an even higher risk of violence. In line with this assertion, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA )Regional Director for West and Central Africa Mabingue Ngom states that: “GBV and gender rapid assessments conducted in West and Central Africa showed strong correlation between COVID-19 and the increased socio-economic vulnerability of women and girls, especially in societies with weak and informal economies.” It will thus not be surprising to witness an escalation of VAWG post COVID-19 as unemployment, financial strains, and insecurity increase. The capacity by organisations advocating for policy reforms on VAWG for service provision in the long run will be impacted as COVID-19 has had a financial strain on most economies in the world.
Having looked at the impact of VAWG during this pandemic period, it is important to shed more light on what is being done to curb its rise. Some governments and civil society organisations have been working to provide responses to the rise in this shadow pandemic. For example, in Canada, domestic violence shelter remained open during the lockdown; in France, alternative accommodation is being provided for domestic violence survivors by hotels when shelters exceed capacity. While in China the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic with links to online resources was adopted to advocate against by helping to break the silence and exposing violence as a risk during this period, in South Africa, accelerating support for community-level service delivery for victims/survivors especially on women in the informal economy, as well as young girls and women affected by HIV and AIDS. Countries like Australia, France and the UK have allocated supplementary funds to help women undergoing violence and to service providers.
Notwithstanding, there are many challenges faced during implementation of these responses. The Commonwealth has highlighted main challenges that are faced in relation to curbing the rise of VAWG during this COVID-19 pandemic namely: access to data which is important in understanding how COVID-19 impacts women and help to identify specific risk factors (causes, forms and types of violence affecting women and girls, who the perpetrators are, where it happens etc.); increase in the prevalence and forms of violence; limited access to justice especially with the advent of the very necessary public health measures; and the lack of service provision because most governments were forced to redirect resources to address the immediate health and economic consequences posed by the pandemic.
Given that Cameroon is not spared from this current pandemic, there is the need for urgent action to reduce women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence in the country. How then can Cameroon address this growing and challenging issue?
Apart from increasing supplementary funding to issues dealing with VAWG, it is also important that the government of Cameroon and all other stakeholders adopt a gender- sensitive and responsive strategy in dealing with the fall-out of the COVID-19 crisis. This includes:
• Establishing COVID-19 data-tracking mechanisms which consider incidences of VAWG implement contact-tracing initiatives which can allow women and girls to report incidences of VAWG;
• Prioritizing VAWG “One-Stop Centres” as essential services which allows victims/survivors to benefit from psychological support in addition to socio-economic assistance and by linking survivors of VAWG to these specialized services;
• Including women in decision-making to ensure that valid gender concerns are adequately captured;
• Mainstreaming VAWG services in medical and other health related services to treat COVID-19 through training/orientation to COVID-19 service providers on VAWG, Child Marriage, caring for child survivors and also on VAWG data collection;
• Intensifying media based VAWG sensitization campaigns through community radio or TV stations especially those with good coverage;
• Increasing women and girls access to technology and full connectivity to increase online advocacy by helping to break the silence and exposing violence.
In conclusion, though it may be difficult to ascertain the extent to which women and girls are under greater risk during this pandemic period, it is important that the government of Cameroon draws lessons from other health emergency situations like Ebola pandemic whereby evidence suggests that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence. This will also be some sort of preparedness strategy for future emergencies.
- UN Women and Plan International (2020), accessed from “We cannot allow COVID-19 to reinforce the digital gender divide”, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/5/op-ed-edphumzile-covid-19-and-the-digital-gender-divide
- World Health Organization (2020), “COVID-19 and violence against women What the health sector/system can do”, accessed from https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/emergencies/COVID-19-VAW-fulltext.pdf?ua=1
- United Nations (2020), “COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”, accessed from https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/issue-brief-covid-19-andending-violence-against-women-and-girls on 15 July 2020