Unlocking the Potential of Communities in Responding to Gender-Based Violence during COVID-19

IN FOCUS, 11 May 2020

Irene Dawa – TRANSCEND Media Service


Following the declaration by the World Health Organisation of COVID-19 as a pandemic on 21 Mar 2020, the world came to the realization that its existence was threatened by a virus more serious than imagined. Since then the disease has swept swiftly across all the continents causing untold suffering and the shutdown of the entire globe. Uganda is one of the first Countries in Africa that declared shut down of institutions, ban on travels both inbound and out bound and later local movement within the Country except for cargo. Many businesses have been shut down except for food, medical and agricultural enterprises. Uganda, like most of developing Countries, has 80% of the people working informal jobs that live on daily wages from hand to mouth. The pandemic is having a significant economic impact on countries still working to emerge from years of conflict like South Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo etc. In places like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Libya, years of war have decimated hospitals and health systems, while humanitarian workers struggle to reach vulnerable populations.

Too often, health workers and medical facilities are explicitly targeted by warring parties, leaving little capacity for health care. Globally, more than 70 million people have been displaced primarily by violent conflict, many of them women and children living in crowded tents or settlements with little access to clean water or adequate medical care.  Around the world, this situation is worse for women as an estimated 70% of the women work in informal jobs with few protections against dismissal or for paid sick leave and limited access to social protection and yet women bear the biggest burden of global challenges. Experiences have shown that where women are primarily responsible for procuring and cooking food for the family, increasing food insecurity as a result of the crises may place them at heightened risk, for example, intimate partner violence (IPV) and other forms of domestic violence due to heightened tensions in the household. Using qualitative method to analyse information from social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, tweeter) and news agencies like Aljazeera, BBC, CNN, KBC, UBC and E-mail correspondences, this article presents some of the analysis from the responses got to extreme challenges women face during COVID-19 lockdown and gives conflict sensitive short and long term recommendations to  respond.

Women and Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown – Global Picture

Women and girls are experiencing distinct challenges and risks associated with the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such the outbreak has exacerbated already existing risks of GBV. Confinement has increased risks of intimate partner violence for women and girls, while worsening their socio-economic situation. This then exposes the already vulnerable women and girls especially in rural areas who are facing increased risks of sexual exploitation by community members as well as partners to greater risk. In parallel, access to regular GBV services has become challenging for survivors. For countries like Uganda that is hosting refugees, the challenges are doubled as it has to respond to the needs of refugees and its citizens.

There is already worrying amount of information on GBV occurring against the backdrop of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is also becoming increasingly clear that many of the measures deemed necessary to control the spread of the disease are not only increasing GBV-related risks and violence against women and girls, but also limiting survivors’ ability to distance themselves from their abusers as well as reducing their ability to access external support. In addition, it is clear from previous epidemics that during health crises, women typically take on additional physical, psychological and time socio economic burdens as caregivers as seen in West Africa and DR Congo during the Ebola outbreaks.  As such, it is critical that all actors involved in efforts to respond to COVID-19 across all sectors take GBV into account within their programme planning and implementation. This kind of response including actively working with men (perpetrators) at community level in advocating for GBV free communities.  In a cross global call, the UNFPA’s core message is “the pandemic will compound existing gender inequalities and increase risks of gender-based violence. The protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls should be prioritized.[1]

This problem of GBV should be seen not only affecting developing countries. There are reports of huge increases in different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including intimate partner violence, in many other countries including the UK, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States[2]

Self-isolation for women in coercive or violent relationships means being trapped often without the means of accessing support (talking to friend and family) with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet. During this lockdown, it is difficult for survivors to access medical care. According to UNFPA, Lockdowns also mean medical services and support to people affected by SGBV may be cut off or considered less important in healthcare structures which are overburdened by responding to COVID-19 cases instead[3].

There is fear that lockdowns and lack of prioritization of SGBV response services mean many women will face forced pregnancies. A study conducted by UNFPA in partnership with Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (USA) and Victoria University (Australia) indicates that globally, around 450 million women across 114 low and middle-income countries use contraceptives. The Significant levels of lockdown-related disruption over 6 months could leave 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries unable to use modern contraceptives, leading to a projected 7 million additional unintended pregnancies.  The study estimated that six months of lockdowns could result in an additional 31 million cases of GBV. The study revealed that delayed programmes, on top of growing economic hardships globally, could result in an estimated 13 million more child marriages over 10 years. The study also projects that there will be 31 million additional cases of GBV during the same period, with a further 15 million more cases expected for every three months of the lockdowns, the study suggests.[4]

In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW) registered 587 cases of GBV between March 23 and April 16, up from 396 cases between February 27 and March 22, which is 48.2% increase in 24 days. In New York City, while calls to domestic violence helplines dropped, organizations helping women find emergency shelter registered a high increase of 35% in calls from women looking for shelter.[5]

In United Kingdom, the average number of killings of women between 23 March and 12 April was five, but this figure has soared to at least 16 by April 24th that is 68.5% increase in 14 days[6]. In Zimbabwe between March 30 and April 9, 2020, an organisation which tracks and monitors conflict, received 764 gender-based violence reports[7].

When GBV occurs, it affects the mental health of women which is likely to worsen during COVID-19 lockdown. In Kenya, a 24-year-old is reported to have stabbed two of her children to death after arguing with her mother. The woman was enraged after her mother asked her to prepare dinner for her kids who had already slept hungry. She is reported to have returned home late and was on her phone prompting the mother to ask why she has not yet made dinner.  The woman allegedly attempted to stab her mother but was quickly overpowered and thrown out of the house.[8]

Economic hardships have hit women hard since the lockdown story. In Kenya, a widow who used wash laundry but lost her sources of income due to lockdown was filmed cooking stones for her eight children to make them believe she was preparing food for them. The mother of the children was hoping the children would fall asleep while they waited for their meal.[9] Reading such a story, it is unbelievable to imagine how the lockdown has made women to do things a woman and others would never do.

The psychological impact of the quarantine is taking a toll on women and children. Some of the quarantine centers do not have basic services for the people quarantined.  In Kenya, a heart-breaking picture of a quarantined woman and her two-month-old baby who were reportedly arrested on Wednesday, April 29, and hauled up at a pathetic quarantine centre at St Anne’s Kisoki Girls in Busia County were forced to sleep on the floor. “In the quarantine centre, she had nowhere to sleep and she opted to stay the night and let the boy sleep on a carton board.”[10]

Access to Services – Reproductive Health of Women

Developing countries often have weak institutions that lack the capacity of rapidly putting a COVID-19 response together for the country – more so for their reproductive health care system. It often takes months for a response to be established and protocols to be put in place.  Apart from that, with the focus being on COVID-19 and for countries that do not have a stable enough economy – a lot of funding is moved towards COVID-19. where so, the reproductive health care system fails in the replenishment of contraceptives which creates an unmet need.

For survivors of GBV, basic services like medical care and other support services are important. However, the coronavirus pandemic has made life even more difficult for domestic violence survivors who have been forced to quarantine with their abusers.[11] For example in Argentina the emergency line for abuse victims, supported by the justice department, has seen a 67% rise in calls for help in April versus a year earlier, after a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 20.[12] It is important to note that restricted access to abortion care facilities or pharmacies that provide medical abortions (i.e. misoprostol pills that can be taken at home) if quarantine periods are extended may lead to unsafe abortions and increased mortality among SGBV survivors.

Difficult access to regular healthcare services. Another fear is that SGBV survivors may also face difficulties accessing contraception for HIV and STI prevention. Lack of timely treatment can put their health and life at risk. A Ugandan woman told to the New Vision daily her story:

“Since he had been going out with other women, I requested that we do an HIV test first, which he rejected. On the day the President announced a 14-day lockdown, late in the night he crept in, held my mouth tight and took advantage of me.”[13]

Christian Cito PhD student in law and criminology at Ghent University and Founder at peacemaker 360 told me in a Facebook conversation:

I have been holding livestreamed discussions with local peacebuilders on Covid19 and one thing that is coming too often is the challenge that many women are exposed to domestic violence under lockdown and accessing their reproductive health rights is complicated”[14].

 Jane Mururu Project management consultant based in Nakuru, Kenya wrote to me:

 The truth is many women are fearful and are not accessing the sexual reproductive health services like family planning clinic, ante natal and post-natal clinics because of balancing house chores and curfew time. They have more parental responsibilities which exerts more stress on them compared to when children are at school. Public vehicles have hiked fares which are beyond reach for many women who are no longer attending to their jobs, because of disruptions in economic activities. In urban slum areas because of population density and sharing of utilities, inability to practice social distancing, the vulnerable women are readily exposed to the virus.

Michelle Belfor is a reproductive health expert; she sent me an email and explained,

The high rate of violence against women and children that arise during this pandemic that also is a reproductive health risk in the broader sense. Not for every women or child ”staying home” means staying safe. More than often this means staying home with their abuser where they are often forced to exploit sexual activities against their will. The community has the responsibility to report any case of abuse. But before that can be done’ we need to stop this culture of accepting abuse – especially in the Caribbean.

This kind of emergencies need an integrated and coordinated approach at different levels for effective intervention. I therefore recommend short and long-term interventions.

Short Term Interventions:

  1. Governments and partners should provide targeted cash transfers for them vulnerable members of the community to buy food and water
  2. Increase level of awareness about Covid -19, mass sensitisation is still limited. Use the media and use local languages so that the message can reach the grassroots
  3. Provision of mobile clinics in order for them to access reproductive health
  4. As a community we should be aware that not every ”stay home” situation is safe. Not for sexual health and also not for the mental health of women. We need a holistic approach to this problem. Society needs to be made aware that the only way we will survive this pandemic is if we all come together and help each-other. The community organizations can support as distribution point for SRHR contraceptives or information. They can also aid as a helpline for sexual abuse cases of sexual violence cases. this may include community Based hotline to report SGBV.

Long Term Interventions:

Engaging men and women as support at community level. Local problems need local solutions.

Governments should invest in women’s shelters to form a gender-based violence (GBV) safety plan. This should aim at providing survivors with a clear guide on how to get themselves and their children into safety if an incident occurs. Putting women in this kind of solution should not lead to women fearing to ask for support because of the presence of male figure. There needs to be sensitisations and training to build confidence between women and men to respond proactively to GBV.

The group of women that are most effected are those in the most vulnerable parts of society facing socio-economic effects.  The best response needs a holistic approach. The overall COVID-19 country response should be viewed through the gender lens taking into account the most vulnerable groups of society. This should be included into the national response. That is the first step. The second step is to create a Sexual Reproductive Health COVID-19 response that brings together all institutions in the field of Sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) and Women’s rights. From there on a plan should be put together to make the SRHR service more accessible on a community level.  This can be done by the Ministry of Health International planned parenthood federation (IPPF),  The UNFPA (or other UN entities) – Community Organizations

Shift in GBV policies, there is an urgent need for gender-sensitive policies addressing the increasing violence against women, the widening gender disparities in labour force participation, rising school dropouts and malnutrition among girls, and women’s disproportionate unpaid work and caregiving responsibilities will increase with after effects of COVID-19. Putting policies to protect women through access to small grants, skill training will develop their capacity to survive and build resilience

Focus on community-based service delivery for survivors; communities should be trained to participate in the process of stopping domestic violence and raising citizens’ awareness, even setting rewards to encourage residents to report suspicions. An enlightened group who are trained in quick response like para-legalism, rescue, reporting to police, providing psychosocial support, and providing temporary shelter. In return, government should hold communities accountable if cases are not reported on time.

For women in urban areas with access to internet, developing online support services could be another practical solution. For instance, apps with alarm-systems could be developed: users would register necessary information like names and addresses, and if abuse were to occur, victims could trigger the system via a specific voice command. In the face of emergencies, victims need hidden and quick ways to seek help. Thus, technology could probably offer an effective solution.


[1] UNFPA (2020). Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Preparedness and Response – UNFPA Technical Briefs V March 23_2020.

[2]  The Guardian (9 April 2020). UK domestic abuse helplines report surge in calls during lockdown, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/09/uk-domestic-abuse-helplines-report-surge-in-calls-during-lockdown.  (Accessed on 1 may 2020).

[3] UNFPA (2020) The gendered impact of COVID-19 (UN daily briefing).

[4] UNFPA (29 April 2020). COVID-19 could lead to 7 million unintended pregnancies: UN study. Available at https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/COVID-19-could-lead-to-7-million-unintended-pregnancies-un-study/article31459930.ece#. (accessed 2 May 2020).

[5] Bansari Kamdar (2020). India’s COVID–19 Gender Blind Spot: India’s women stand to lose from the country ‘s COVID–19 policies in many ways. Available at https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/indias-COVID-19-gender-blind-spot/  (accessed 3 May 2020).

[6] The Organisation for World peace (2020) Domestic violence: a hidden pandemic. Available at https://theowp.org/domestic-violence-a-hidden-issue-during-the-epidemic/. (Accessed 2 May 2020)

[7] AllAfrica News (2020) Africa: Triple Threat – Conflict, Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19

[8] Owenga Erick (3 May 2020) Woman, 24, stabs two children to death after argument with her mother https://citizentv.co.ke/news/kayole-24-year-old-woman-stabs-her-2-kids-to-death-after-an-argument-with-her-mother-331633/.  (Accessed 1 May 2020).

[9]BBC (1May 2020). Coronavirus: Kenyans moved by widow cooking stones for children https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52494404. (Accessed 4 May 2020).

[10] John Mbati  (1 May 2020) Heart breaking Story of Quarantined Infant Forced to Sleep on Floor  https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/52716-heartbreaking-story-quarantined-infant. (Accessed 4 May 2020)

[11] Ibid

[12]  Reuters (27 April 2020) ‘Another Pandemic’: In Latin America, Domestic Abuse Rises Amid Lockdowns. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/04/27/world/americas/27reuters-health-coronavirus-latam-domesticviolence.html. (Accessed 2 May 2020).

[13] The New vision (20 April 2020) Gender Based Violence: When staying at home isn’t safe. Available at https://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1518070/gender-violence-staying-home-isnt-safe. (Accessed 2 May 2020).

[14] Christian Cito PhD student in law and criminology at Ghent University and Founder at peacemaker 360 told me in a facebook conversation interview with Autor (2 May 2020).


Irene Dawa, from Uganda, holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the European Peace University in Austria and an MA in International Relations and Economics from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. She has worked in Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, DRC, Liberia, USA and India. Her research focuses on women peace and security, sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict, protection, conflict sensitive programming, and project development and management. She is currently perusing a PhD in Peace Studies at the Durban University of Technology in South Africa. Iryndahda@gmail.com

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One Response to “Unlocking the Potential of Communities in Responding to Gender-Based Violence during COVID-19”

  1. Umulker Kassim says:

    GBV has been on the rise and goes unreported because the victims feel that the COVID -19 seems more grave to them thereby persevere and there are in incidences where there are killings.