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The Shadow Pandemic- GUIU’s Response to Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19

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"As we know from other crises, girls and women are the most vulnerable. There are increasing incidences of gender-based violence as men are under more mental and economic stress. People don’t know how to resolve conflict in the home."

- Clare Tusingwire, GUIU’s Program Director

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent national lockdown has increased adolescent girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV).

Therefore, our gender-responsive approach to the pandemic has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the rates of GBV are on the rise. UN Women (2020) is calling this a ‘shadow pandemic’ of growing violence against women as 90 countries went into lockdown, resulting in four billion people globally sheltering at home .

Gender-Based Violence During Lockdown

GBV is a result of the gendered unequal power dynamics that manifests in physical, sexual, emotional, and economic violence. It can have a devastating impact on girls’ short and long-term mental and physical well-being as well as her sexual and reproductive health.

To prevent all instances of GBV, we have been at the forefront of efforts to protect girls and women from GBV, to change the gendered unequal power dynamics that are the root cause of GBV, and to create a safe environment for girls in their schools, homes and communities.

Uganda’s national lockdown has now been in place for 8 weeks, restricting freedom of movement and imposing social distancing measures. Adolescent girls and women are at a heightened risk of experiencing GBV during this time because the economic and social stress caused by lockdown has exacerbated the patriarchal norms and gender inequalities that cause GBV.

As Honorable Frank Tumwebaze, Minister of Gender, Labour, and Social Development underlined in an interview with NTV on the gendered impacts of the pandemic:

"COVID-19 didn't bring domestic violence. It only recreated conditions for an underlying problem to worsen."

Many girls and women are isolating at home with perpetrators of violence and are unable to access medical treatment, refuge, or help because of the ongoing ban on public and private transport, resulting in an exponential increase in cases of GBV. Violence against women and girls was already a widespread social issue in Uganda. According to the 2019 Uganda Police Report, there were an average of 1,141 cases of domestic violence cases reported monthly, and 64% of women between the ages of 15-49 in Uganda reported having ever experienced gender-based violence (UBOS, 2012). However, in the first month of the lockdown, police noted a significant surge in GBV cases, with an estimated 3,280 cases reported to them between March 30 and April 28 (CNN, 2020).

There is also wide under-reporting of GBV. Less than 40% of women who experience GBV seek help of any sort or report the crime, and less than 10% of those women go to the police (UN Women, 2020). Given the current restrictions on travel in Uganda, reporting to the police is even more difficult in this time.

Working with the Uganda Police Force

Despite the challenges, our team continues to work hand-in-hand with the Child and Family Protection Unit (CFPU) of the Uganda Police Force to offer emergency help to women and girls affected by GBV during the lockdown. Our Program Director, Clare Tusingwire, and Program Assistant Clare Natukunda, who have established close relationships with local police posts in our communities, assist the police in supporting the most vulnerable women and girls through our Emergency Support Fund.

From March to mid-May, we have supported five women who reported cases of domestic violence and two cases of the defilement of adolescent girls through this Emergency Support Fund by offering medical assistance or money for food. In the case that their husbands are arrested as part of the prosecution process, this can leave the survivors and their families financially vulnerable as they are often economically reliant on their husbands. Therefore, the financial support is crucial to supporting survivors of GBV during the pandemic because it encourages them to report cases to the police without fear for their own livelihoods and health.

Remote GBV Support

To protect the girls in our programs from GBV, GUIU has also been supporting them through regularly checking in with them and their families through telephone calls from our coaches. This provides a safe space for girls to ask questions about key topics, such as GBV, with someone that they are comfortable with and for coaches to counsel parents on maintaining positive and healthy family relationships during lockdown.

Our team has also been able to talk to parents and girls in person during the distribution of our Survive and Thrive relief packages, which also includes an information sheet on preventing GBV.

relief packages for COVID-19

We are also encouraging youth to report GBV cases and access free youth-friendly counseling through the Ni-Yetu toll free telephone number (0800200600) that is available 24 hours a day. Also, we have been continuing the discussion online through providing key information on our social media accounts and engaging youth in Tweet Chats.

report GBV

Hope for the Future

GUIU’s Program Director, Clare, is confident that despite the challenges of responding to GBV during the COVID-19 pandemic, lessons learnt from the solutions being piloted during the lockdown will result in positive change for girls and women in the future:

“The lockdown period has raised awareness of GBV. Women have a voice and we must use it to advocate for the government to tackle the underlying causes and increase funding for GBV prevention and response in the national budget.”

Our team is dedicated to using innovative solutions and working with local authorities to protect girls and women from GBV and promote healthy gender power dynamics during the lockdown.

You can join us in our mission to stop the global ‘shadow pandemic’ by reaching out to and supporting girls in your own community to speak up against violence and get support. Let us come out of this crisis with renewed energy to stop GBV in all forms.