By Wallace Mawire
“Orange the world: End Violence against women now!”
Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ), a non-partisan national network of women’s rights organisations and activists striving for the rights of women and girls, commemorates 16 days of activism against Gender-Based Violence. The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. It was started by activists at the inaugural Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991 and continues to be coordinated each year by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. It is used as an organizing strategy by individuals and organizations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.
Research evidence has shown that in Zimbabwe, 1 in 3 women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 1 . The situation has since worsened due to COVID-19 as socio-economic effects of the pandemic, coupled with living in the same space for a continued period of time increasing the number of GBV cases. The mandatory lockdowns have seen many women and girls being trapped with their abusers and not knowing where to go or how to get help during the lockdown. With COVID-19 still a reality and the threats of GBV on the lives of women and girls still ravaging, WCoZ continues to call for Government to prioritize the continuity of GBV services with GBV service providers continuously being recognised as essential workers, integration of GBV services as well as information vital in GBV and COVID-19 response to end violence against women. Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has been directing much-needed attention to gender- based violence (GBV) worldwide and is particularly shining a light on the hidden epidemic of intimate partner violence (IPV). In fact, in recent months, there has been a plethora of high-profile statements calling for measures to address the GBV ‘shadow pandemic’.
Zimbabwe is a party to several regional and international instruments that promote women’s rights and gender equality and also extend protection to women against all forms of violence. These include the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of violence Against Women (CEDAW),the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human Peoples Rights on the rights of Women in Africa and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Additionally, the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees equality, freedom from all forms of violence, equal access to resources among other provisions. However, despite these progressive measures, women and girls in Zimbabwe, remain marginalized across the economic, social and political spheres in Zimbabwe and this makes them vulnerable and exposed in terms of experiencing and wearing the face of gender-based violence.
The above brings to the fore the fact that GBV is a persistent menace that has reversed the gains of gender equality for women and girls and therefore solutions must be sustainable and capable of responding to GBV in any circumstance. Much of the advocacy on GBV in the context of COVID-19 has focused on two areas, and that is, (i) strengthening response services for GBV survivors and (ii) enhancing prevention efforts targeting root causes of violence. However, it is crucial for focus to be paid to GBV risk mitigation interventions which aim to reduce exposure to GBV and also ensure that humanitarian response actions and services themselves do not cause harm or increase risk of violence. Research also indicates that healthcare resources directed at women and girls continue to be at risk of being diverted towards addressing the pandemic. Challenges in accessing menstrual hygiene products and sexual and reproductive health services will exacerbate girls existing reproductive health risks (e.g. pregnancy and childbirth complications which is one of the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 years old). There may also be an impact on survivors of sexual violence being able to access clinical management of rape services. Even where such services may be still operational, fear of COVID-19 infection may find caregivers reluctant to allow adolescent girls to access such services.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which is still a reality worldwide, risks not only reversing progress made in increasing girls equitable access to education, but may also lead to increased incidents of pregnancy and early/ forced marriage. These cases are on the rise, and Anna/Memory Machaya’s case is just one out of many more. Pregnant girls and adolescent mothers do not tend to go back to school due to stigma, childcare, economic considerations and the status of laws, policies, and practices that block their access to education. Additionally, COVID-19 presents similar risks including- (as in other outbreaks and humanitarian crises), the risk of adolescent girls being exploited by extended familial or community network systems if their trusted caregiver (s) falls ill or dies during the course of the pandemic. This also
includes commercial sexual exploitation, with perpetrators grooming families facing economic hardship to sell their girl children, or grooming girls online (in contexts where girls have internet access).
Subsequently, the shadow pandemic has exposed cracks within our legal and psycho-social support system with far reaching negative consequences for women and girls in Zimbabwe. Despite having the Domestic Violence Act in place, these findings have revealed that many women and girls continue to experience physical and sexual abuse from family members, partners and even duty bearers. Indeed Zimbabwe’s commitment towards the participation and empowerment of women has been explicitly expressed throughout the Constitution which was created on the founding values and principles of fundamental human rights and freedoms and gender equality among many others. However, the 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 and this is why we strongly call upon the Government and relevant Ministries to take the initiative and “Orange the world: End Violence against women now!”