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COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence in Zimbabwe: How is the pandemic increasing the risk of violence against women and girls?

Mkcoursin 132 SAFE

In this blog to mark the Global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) campaign, we summarise available evidence on how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced trends and forms of GBV in Zimbabwe, which women and girls are most at risk of GBV, and what factors are driving GBV during the pandemic. For more details please read the report that this blog is based on: Evidence Synthesis: Secondary impacts of COVID-19 on gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls in Zimbabwe. We hope the findings will be useful for a wide range of actors who are part of the collective struggle to end GBV.

The COVID-19 pandemic and steps taken by governments to slow or stop the spread of the virus, including lockdowns and movement restrictions, have had a range of impacts on GBV around the world. Reports of domestic violence, child marriage, violence by state officials and armed guards, online abuse and other forms of GBV have increased globally and regionally during the pandemic, and Zimbabwe is no exception to this trend.

The first COVID-19 case in Zimbabwe was reported on 21st March 2020. Schools and international borders were closed and on 30th March 2020 the country entered a national lockdown. Whilst beneficial for containing the virus, these responses had immediate and long term consequences for women and girls who faced disruptions to their education, livelihoods, food security and access to services including GBV support and sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH). The COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to worsen Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, with the poor and those who are already marginalised affected most. Lockdown restrictions mean that women and girls are forced to spend time enclosed with families, trapping many at home with their abusers, and has also manifested in violence in violence in public places.

GBV in Zimbabwe during COVID-19

Since the start of lockdown, GBV service providers in Zimbabwe have seen an increase in reported GBV cases, including psychological, physical, sexual and economic forms of violence. During the first 11 days of the lockdown, the National GBV Hotline run by Musasa registered 764 reported cases of GBV, compared to 500-600 cases a month prior to COVID-19. Beyond the spike in reporting, service providers have witnessed an increase in the severity of violence. Under-reporting of GBV was already a significant issue in Zimbabwe due to harmful social norms and stigma. COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate this as women and girls are confined in the home, their movement restricted, and support is harder to access. Therefore, these figures are likely to be an under-estimate of the actual levels of GBV during the pandemic.

SAFE’s analysis of GBV data between March and May 2020 found that intimate partner violence (IPV) was the most frequently reported form of GBV as 69.5% of identifiable perpetrators were intimate partners. The COVID-19 lockdown has also exposed women and girls to violence when accessing services, including at water collection points. The perpetrators include men using the services, service providers who demand sex in exchange for water, as well as law enforcement officers monitoring the lockdown. This is one of numerous examples of violence by law enforcement agents, who are also responsible for attacks on women alleged to be ‘defying’ lockdown restrictions and women engaging in peaceful protests.

Women and girls who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination were already at higher risk of violence, which COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate. Emerging evidence in Zimbabwe, or regionally, indicates that poor women, women in rural areas, women and girls with disabilities, adolescent girls, older women, LBTQI+ women, women and girls with HIV, migrant women and women in quarantine facilities, and refugee women are at heightened risk of violence. However, more research is needed that looks at their experiences of violence during the pandemic.

What is driving GBV during the pandemic?

Existing high levels of GBV in Zimbabwe, driven by factors including patriarchal social norms and gender inequalities, have been exacerbated by the responses to the pandemic. Children have been exposed to abuse as school closures have left them without that protective environment. Since the lockdown began, Zimbabwean organisations have seen increases in reports of GBV and child protection concerns, including child marriage, underage pregnancy and girls engaging in transactional sex. Prior to the pandemic, girls from poorer households and girls with lower levels of formal education were at higher risk of child marriage in Zimbabwe (ZIMSTAT, 2016); COVID-19 threatens to bring more girls into this high-risk group.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has wide ranging implications for women’s economic situation and rights in Zimbabwe, which were already restricted. Movement restrictions and the closure of markets and borders have had significant impacts on informal workers, agriculture workers and cross-border traders, which represent large percentages of women. The socio-economic effects of COVID-19 have worsened financial and food insecurity across the country, raising household tensions. Women and girls have also faced additional demands on their time, as social norms and rigid gender roles has meant that the responsibility for caring for children out of school or family members who are unable to access healthcare, has fallen on their shoulders.

Women and girls, particularly those in rural areas, face additional barriers in accessing SRH, including GBV services such as the clinical management of rape. Movement restrictions make it difficult to access services discreetly, some SRH service delivery points have been forced to close, and increased financial pressures have made contraception, testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and maternity services unaffordable. Border closures have made accessing safe, legal abortions more difficult. SRH services offer an opportunity to identify and support survivors of GBV, an opportunity that is being missed as fewer women and girls can access services during lockdown.

Stopping Abuse and Female Exploitation (SAFE) is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The programme aims to prevent and respond to GBV in Zimbabwe. SAFE (Communities) is implemented by ECORYS (in partnership with Social Development Direct and SAFAIDS). SAFE (Communities) has been adapted to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic between May 2020 and March 2021 through a GBV Technical Assistance Facility (TAF) staffed with GBV experts ready to provide rapid and contextually relevant support to Zimbabwean stakeholders. You can get in contact with the SAFE TAF with any questions or requests for support at: SAFETAF@ecorys.com  

Sources

Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) (2016) Zimbabwe: Demographic and Health Survey 2015, Maryland: Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency.

Disclaimer: This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies