Did Covid-19 erode progress in fighting gender-based violence?

Violet Alinda

During a visit to Moyo District in December 2020, I learned that 33 cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), were reported by telephone call to the Trans Nile Broadcasting Service (TBS), a local radio station, in the first three months of the Covid-19 lock down. 

Located in Uganda’s West-Nile region, Moyo is one of the 38 districts for whom the lock down was extended to slow the rate of community transmission.  At the time of my visit, the General Election campaign season was at its peak. All public conversations focused on politics, leaving no room to discuss other important issues affecting the communities. The 33 cases represent women and girls ‘lucky’ enough to live in villages with good mobile phone coverage and local radio signals such that they even had the opportunity to report these events to a forum in which they were assured of some response. 

Many women and girls experiencing violence never get a chance to report their cases due to intimidation or coercion, shame, poor treatment expectations and realities, lack of access to reporting mechanisms more so during the lock down, low expectations and a myriad of other factors. 

The cases reported in Moyo reflect a much bigger and deeper problem in our society. In 2016, the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) showed that one in four (22 per cent) women aged 15 to 49 experienced sexual violence at some point. 

In 2017, Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) reported that one in eight (13 per cent) women had experienced sexual violence in the 12 months preceding the survey. 

Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi in 2017 found that nearly half (47 per cent) of Ugandan women aged 15 to 49 had experienced violence at the hands of their current or former partner. Given all the barriers to reporting these crimes, perhaps it is no surprise that the police reported a modest drop in domestic violence cases between 2018 and 2019 from 13,916 to 13,693. However, if my experience in Moyo is anything to go by, 2020 might have been a year of an alarming rise in all of these figures. 

Did Covid-19 and the lockdown erode the [modest] progress made in protecting and safeguarding women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence? What more must be done to stop reversals in the future when calamities strike? How best do we protect the women and girls to enable them realise their fullest potential? 

It is easy to see SGBV cases as statistics behind the numbers are horror stories baby girls, toddlers, teens, young women and mature old women. These are our daughters, cousins, nieces, aunties and yes you heard that grandparents! For these survivors, their lives may never be the same because of the physical and the psychological trauma they have suffered.  It’s perplexing that perpetrators are not held to task, why the justice for the victims is perennially delayed.    

Whereas both women and men are involved in inflicting harm and abusing women because they were born female, all is not lost. The community can rally around the victims to seek justice against the perpetrators. One case involving a 40-year-old torture victim whose case file had been compromised and, under the pretext that the injury was ‘minor’ stands out. 

The community stood in solidarity with the survivor to demand for fairness. The perpetrator had been given a lighter punishment of community service in the village. The community together with the village leaders engaged district officials who in turn sanctioned the file. Fresh medical examinations were carried out that revealed severe torture. This formed the basis to rescind the earlier decision. The perpetrator remains on remand awaiting trial. 

The case of the 40-year-old gives hope for survivors. Given the right information communities can play a powerful role to reduce SGBV crimes and support accountability actions for justice to be served. On the flipside, anecdotal implicates communities in conspiring with perpetrators, especially when underage girls are defiled or raped. 

Ms Violet Alinda is the country lead, Twaweza East Africa.