In the last few months, as the coronavirus has spread across the world, African countries have registered a surge in cases of domestic violence and sexual violence, which has provoked public outrage.
In May, South Sudanese activists protested the gang rape of an eight-year-old girl by three men while holding her mother at gunpoint, in the capital, Juba. The online campaign #SouthSudaneseSurvivor prompted women to share their harrowing experiences to break the silence on sexual abuse and rape culture in their communities both in the country and the diaspora.
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Around the same time, in one of his national COVID-19 addresses, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa decried that “the scourge of gender-based violence continues to stalk our country as the men of our country declared war on the women.” Calls to the government-run GBV and femicide command centre had reportedly doubled during the nationwide lockdown.
In early June, Nigerians started the #WeAreTired campaign after two young women, Vera Uwaila Omosuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, and 18-year-old Barakat Bello were raped and killed five days apart. Following the online campaign and nationwide protests by women’s rights activists, all 36 Nigerian governors agreed to declare a state of emergency over gender-based violence against women and children. In the same month, Nigerian Popstar D’banj faced allegations of rape and abduction.
In late June, campaigners in Sierra Leone protested the rape and killing of a five-year-old girl, Kadijah Saccoh. In July, Liberian human rights activists called on President George Weah to announce policy responses to the alarming increase in rape.
In Machakos County in Kenya, 3,964 girls became pregnant in five month period to June, , as children stayed at home due to COVID-19 closures. Similar grim trends have been registered in neighbouring Uganda. Most of these cases are a result of statutory rape. The majority of cases of sexual violence are perpetrated by people known to the children, proof that home is hardly a safe place.
African countries are not unique in this pattern of increased gender-based violence during the pandemic. The UN has warned of a “shadow pandemic“, as countries across the world have reported a spike in domestic violence. The reality, however, is that violence against women and girls is hardly a “shadow” pandemic. The term “shadow” trivialises and minimises the consistent and harrowing violence African women and girls experience on a daily basis. To address violence against women and girls, African governments must first acknowledge its historic existence and tackle it as a matter of national emergency.
What the present crisis highlights across the African continent is the ineffectiveness of past measures. It seems the little band-aids that existed in normal pre-pandemic times have been ripped off, and the perpetual state of violence that African women experience can no longer be ignored.
No normal times for women’s safety
The gender-based violence pandemic sweeping through Africa today comes on the heels of a series of protests, calls for action from activists and declarations of commitment to eradicating the problem from government officials over the past few years.
In Sierra Leone, President Julius Maada Bio declared a national emergency over sexual violence in February 2019 after hearing the testimony from a five-year-old girl who was paralysed after being raped.
In Sudan, an independent commission was formed in September 2019, to investigate the massacre and mass rape of protesters during a sit-in in Khartoum, demanding the military hand over power after the deposing long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir. The commission is still to release the results of its inquiry.
In South Africa, in 2018, activists presented 24 demands to the government calling for action against Gender-Based Violence. A few months later, in response to these demands, the Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide was held, and the presidency expressed its commitment to addressing all of them. But just a year later, the rape and murder of 19-year-old student Uyinene Mrwetyana at a post office sparked mass protests against the lack of progress on eliminating gender-based violence.
In Nigeria, photographer Busola Dakolo’s testimony detailing her rape by the pastor of a large church in Abuja sparked public outcry and precipitated the campaign #ChurchToo to demand accountability from the Church in 2019. The Christian Association of Nigeria pledged to get to the “root of the matter”.
And perhaps even more importantly, across West Africa, in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak of 2013-2015, evidence was collected of a significant increase in sexual and gender-based violence. Yet the local authorities did not take action to put protocols in place to protect women and children.
Why does sexual violence continue to rise?
Rape does not happen in a vacuum. It is part of a continuum of gender-based violence allowed and meted out on women through harmful social and cultural norms embedded in society. Stereotypical gender norms and practices endorsed by patriarchy remain at the root of it.
When it comes to irrevocably and radically shifting societal standards towards humanising women outside violence, most of society remains impervious.
Various actors – from legislators to law enforcement, religious bodies, the media and gatekeepers of culture – have not taken their role as guarantors of the rights of women, girls and minorities seriously.
As Nigerian feminist scholar, Amina Mama, has said, “African ‘liberated’ states have never liberated women. It’s been an edifice of male complicity engaged in pacification forever … colonial, post-colonial, neoliberal, theocratic.”
Survivors often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, between a societal system that silences them and a state that constantly fails to value their lives. Globally, 30 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Women do not always report their experiences of violence because of deep-rooted barriers including “fear of stigma and shame, financial barriers, lack of awareness of available services, fear of revenge, lack of law enforcement action and attitudes surrounding violence as a normal component of life”.
Containing COVID-19 has now become the primary focus of governments, with little attention paid to gender-based violence. State control and militarism have taken centre stage. The solidifying of oppressive state power in a pandemic means a consolidation of patriarchal power and violence at micro- and macro-levels.
Economic pressures have significantly limited alternatives for victims of violence. COVID-19-related restrictions have forced survivors to co-exist with their abusers and justice systems offer little hope for the punishment of perpetrators.
Investment by African governments in state-funded shelters could have created safe spaces for victims of gender-based violence, but that has not happened. Additionally, civic support has been limited by both by restrictions on movement and the lack of capacities in addressing occupational safety and protection in these times.
What COVID-19 response must bring?
Building a post-COVID-19 society that better addresses inequality and provides a better social contract for women is a liberation struggle that requires society-wide commitment. Social and cultural norms that uphold scrutiny and control of women’s sexuality, enable victim-blaming and excuse violence against women must be dismantled.
As Oyeronkee Oyewumi, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, has argued: “What I see is what I call cultures of impunity that colonisation represented … The colonisers did whatever they wanted, and so they did lay out these institutions that were not responsive to the colonised. As a result, today, we have all sorts of cultures of impunity from the top-down … We must never accept.”
The pandemic has tested the fabric of society as we know it. It has exposed the failures and the unsustainable nature of capitalism. The social-political and economic impact of the health crisis has forced us to re-imagine a just world. As we advocate for that just world, we must, with similar gusto, advocate for a safer world for women.
We must stop interventions that entrench performative male support of gender equality with no shift in how power is held and exercised. Any responses to sexual violence in this pandemic must be mindful of the ways in which societies were already failing women. Therefore, an understanding of systemic inequalities is essential in creating alternatives.
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in all their diversities depends on what responses African states and communities put in place regarding gender-based violence. States must acknowledge and link the historical institutionalisation of male dominance to gender-based violence and work towards eliminating the hurdles to women’s right to a dignified life.
Women’s voices must be centred in decision-making both at the national and community level and services – from medical-legal and psychosocial assistance – expedited to mitigate gender-based violence within COVID-19 response plans. A continent-wide response is necessary and urgent.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.