Fighting the shadow pandemic of violence against women and children during COVID-19 in Kenya

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Alongside health impacts, the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought a loss of liberties. Restrictions in movement have affected people’s jobs and livelihoods. Despite the many hardships being faced, freedom from violence cannot, under any circumstance, be surrendered – the right to live free from violence is a basic human right. Yet the most vulnerable members of society including children, women, persons with disabilities, the elderly – are suffering during isolation. 

Many countries are reporting a surge in cases of domestic and sexual violence, also known as gender-based violence (GBV), as well as violence against children. Kenya is following this trend: a third of crimes reported since COVID-19 arrived were related to sexual violence. To stop this ‘shadow’ pandemic’, we must act now.

The United Nations (UN) and the Government of Kenya launched a flash appeal this month, seeking $267 million to respond to the most immediate needs of over 10 million people during the pandemic. Of this, $4.2m is needed to provide lifesaving medical treatment, psycho-social support and legal representation in relation to violence against children and GBV. The gaps in violence prevention and response existed in Kenya before COVID-19. This crisis magnifies these gaps as resources and access to services become even more strained.

How can a virus spread violence?

The increase in reported cases of GBV and violence against children since the start of the COVID-19 crisis is driven by several factors. Financial hardship due to restriction of movement and curfew affects livelihoods, especially for those working in the informal sector. Confinement at home, under heightened levels of stress, uncertainty, and fear, can produce stressful environments that precipitate violence. 

At this time, children are at heightened risk of all forms of violence, including violent discipline by family members and emotional abuse. Families in highly pressured situations may also resort to child labor, transactional sex, FGM and child marriage. Removing children from a protective environment such as school, exacerbates these risks.  

What is the United Nations in Kenya doing about it?

The UN’s rights-based response to COVID19 includes strengthening and increasing availability of essential GBV services. To address restricted access to services during isolation, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has collaborated with the Kenya Red Cross Society to sustain clinical management of sexual violence supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) in all humanitarian hubs in the country. 

UNICEF is working with Kenya’s Department of Children’s Services to continue to provide case management services for girl and boy survivors of violence against children.

UN Women, UNFPA and UNICEF are working closely with Kenya’s national child and GBV hotlines, to increase psychosocial support through telephone and chat counselling services. These are often first responders to survivors of domestic violence or violence against children and their role cannot be understated. Data from these helplines is already informing the government’s national response. Assistance is also being given to the Ministry of Health to develop GBV guidelines during COVID19.

Public awareness-raising, especially for those most at risk, will be rolled out to promote rights and services. Public engagement is also crucial for prevention, which is why the UN agencies will identify male champions to promote respectful relationships and encourage others to refrain from violence.

Where do we go from here?

In times of crises, obtaining the most basic hygiene products also becomes a challenge for women and girls. At the county level, ‘dignity kits’ will be distributed to the most affected areas. These kits contain sanitary pads, soap, whistles, and flashlights, so women and girls can protect themselves from violence and maintain a level of dignity during the crisis.

Access to livelihood support is an urgent priority for women and children in informal settlements, as sources of income are reduced. Cash transfers or vouchers will be disbursed to avoid social contact and minimize infection. Mental health and psychosocial support services, including safe spaces and online counseling services, remain insufficient. Healthcare service providers require orientation and equipment for survivor-centered support that does not increase risk of infection.

UNICEF is calling for child protection workers to be included as an essential service, so they can respond to VAC and GBV cases after the curfew, and for the reactivation of the Child Protection Volunteers scheme, in order to reach out to vulnerable families for prevention, early identification and referral of cases of violence.

The only way we can protect the right to freedom from violence is by acting as one. We call on the international community to take note of the surge in violence against women and children and support the mobilization of resources, on government to strengthen protection mechanisms, and on citizens to take action to reduce human rights abuses in their communities. 

Together, we can prevent this health pandemic from becoming a human rights epidemic. 

By: Anna Mutavati is the UN Women Representative to Kenya, Maniza Zaman