April 9, 2020

COVID-19: Lockdown is trapping 80m women and girls with abusers

Women and girls trapped with abusers

By Lolo Cynthia Ihesie

As cities observe a total lockdown in Nigeria to curb the spread of coronavirus, cases of rape and sexual assault are spiking, with about 80 million women and girls trapped with abusers. For too many, the home has become a battlefield for girls and women subjected to gender-based violence.

As part of its comprehensive response to COVID-19, the government must immediately put in place measures to protect girls and women isolated with their abusers.

Even without the pandemic, combating gender-based violence, GBV, is an uphill battle in Nigeria with approximately 80 million women and girls still victims of GBV.

With the lockdown and heightened emotions, isolation provides fertile ground for abuse to prevail as women are cut away from social or institutional support.

This has proven true in other countries as well. From France to China, GBV rates have been escalating. France reports a 30% increase in domestic violence cases. In Hubei province China, cases rose from 47 last year in February, to 162 this year. In the United States, domestic violence shelters are swamped with calls.

The Nigerian government has ignored the dangers a lockdown poses to girls and women.

The main government body responsible for GBV in Lagos State, the Domestic Sexual Violence Response Team, DSVRT, plans to tackle GBV through purely electronic means, via email, social media, and conference calls, and encouraged women to rely on family and friends for shelter if there is a danger of domestic violence.

DSVRT has also suggested that abusers will refrain from violence if they know they are being monitored by family, but the opposite might also be true.

Furthermore, the DSVRT does not address the needs of adolescents in abusive settings. Especially given cultural norms in Nigeria where young girls are not allowed the space to speak against authority figures or older men in the family, adolescent girls are certainly being stranded in harm’s way.

Other organisations like Women at Risk International Foundation, WARIF, have closed their walk-in offices and rely fully on phone and digital communications to offer support. Yet internet access in Nigeria is unreliable.

These approaches fall far short of what is needed. As mounting stress leads to increased gender-based violence, an extended lockdown with no proactive gender response surrenders women and girls to full-time abuse.

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We need innovative gender responses from the Nigerian government. It should take a cue from the government of France in tackling women trapped with abusers. They responded to the spike in domestic violence by setting up an “alert system” in pharmacies nationwide, where victims can discreetly ask pharmacists to call police using a code word. They also budgeted 20,000 nights of accommodation in hotels for victims of GBV and set up 20 support centres at shopping malls where women can seek help.

Police authorities could also follow India’s lead and launch specific hotlines for GBV. There, women police officers personally visit complainants who use a special helpline. Given the shortage of open shelters, another tactic would be to send the abuser to a detention centre or order him to stay with other family and friends—not the victim.

We need girls and women to have online chat forums on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and other social media, and not only phone calls to reach help as their abusers could be eavesdropping. Although abusers could digitally monitor.

The victims, using simple tools like a hashtag for GBV victims will allow them to open anonymous accounts and share their ordeals.

We need specific interventions for adolescents suffering abuse and women trapped with abusers. The Ministries of Women Affairs and Youth Development should collaborate with teenage influencers who can advertise hotlines and amplify messages about the right to safety and how to report abuse.

The government should recognise organisations supporting victims of GBV as an essential service, and provide funds for them to continue operations as part of the COVID-19 response.

To be fair, the government is managing overwhelming needs with constricted finances. But we cannot sacrifice our women and girls in this time of national crisis. Failure to protect girls and women from violence and sexual abuse can lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies, backstreet abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.

It could increase trauma and mental health problems, including PTSD. This instability would increase the burden on the health sector. Violence and intimidation within the home could also lead to under-reported cases of COVID-19 and indeed to spread of disease as women run from their tormentors.

Now, more than ever, women and girls need strong advocates within the government. The Minister of Women, Ms. Dame Pauline Tallen, should step up and advocate for girls and women within government decision-making bodies.

She should use her access to power to advocate for girls and women in government meetings and push for policies and funding to curb the coronavirus-related spike in gender-based violence.

By Lolo Cynthia Ihesie, sexuality and reproductive educator, wrote in from  Lagos.