All hands needed on deck to end violence

The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified GBV.

In Summary
  • In a country where many programmes, including laws and policies, to mitigate gender-based violence have been launched, we are yet to get it right.
  • Kenya has only one state-owned sexual and recovery centre for SGBV survivors, in Makueni county.

As Kenya reflects on the last decade since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, the safety of women and girls should not be taken lightly. All protective services for women and girls must be classified as essential all the time, whether we are experiencing a pandemic or not, and especially now as we grapple with the negative effects of Covid-19.

Domestic violence hotlines, safe spaces, sexual and reproductive health services, referral pathways, and justice mechanisms are necessary in pre-pandemic times, and even more important during crises.

In a country where many programmes, including laws and policies, to mitigate gender-based violence have been launched, we are yet to get it right. During this pandemic, the very measures taken to protect populations and keep health systems afloat have left women and girls vulnerable to violence and exacerbated pre-existing gender biases and power hierarchies.

Violence in the home has worsened as prolonged curfew, lockdowns and the resultant confinement have driven the economy downhill and families have lost income streams. GBV is a hidden consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and has come to be known as the shadow pandemic. The pandemic has magnified GBV thanks to pre-existing toxic social norms, gender inequalities, economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation. Many women and girls are trapped at home with abusers, making it harder for survivors to report abuse and seek help.

Even before Covid-19, GBV was already one of the greatest human rights violations against women and girls. In the month of August alone, Kenya recorded more than 450 cases of GBV while the Gender Violence Recovery Centre recorded 368 cases in July, with the highest form being sexual violence among teenagers. Recent survey by Healthcare Assistance Kenya on Covid-19 and SGBV indicates that 38 out of the 47 counties have reported SGBV cases since mid-March when Covid-19 was confirmed in the country.

With the reopening of schools still hanging in the balance, it is becoming clear that everyone has to pull together to bring this vice to an end. Otherwise, in 2021 we will have an even larger problem with a high number of pregnant schoolgoing girls and an even higher number of traumatised children.

A report by the National Council on Population and Development showed that two out of five teenagers are either young mothers or pregnant. With the reopening of schools still hanging in the balance, it is becoming clear that everyone has to pull together to bring this vice to an end. Otherwise, in 2021 we will have an even larger problem with a high number of pregnant schoolgoing girls and an even higher number of traumatised children.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, this number is likely to grow with multiple impacts on women’s wellbeing, their sexual and reproductive health, their mental health, and their ability to participate and lead in the recovery of our societies and economy.

Government authorities, women’s rights activists and civil society partners heightened demand for emergency shelter and guidelines for setting up the same. Kenya has only one state-owned sexual and recovery centre for SGBV survivors, in Makueni county.

The national GBV sector working group has taken steps to improve coordination of responses to Covid-19 and, in particular, mitigating its impact on women and girls’ health, economic and social well-being. These measures include: Weekly meetings to take stock of status of incidences of SGBV as well as response interventions, strengthening documentation, prevention and response measures. The working group draws its membership from state and non-state actors including CSOs, private sector, development partners such as UN and multi-lateral agencies.

Multi-stakeholder and multi-agency approaches, including consortiums, are needed to push together to tackle SGBV from all angles towards eliminating this vice. Recently, Chief Justice David Maraga called for church leaders to step up and be part of the solution. He noted that since March, sexual offences made 38.5 percent of the offences reported.

President Uhuru Kenyatta also directed the National Crime Research Centre to probe the vices in 30 days and prepare an advisory for security agencies on the immediate action to be pursued. The outcomes of these directives are being waited for eagerly. Meanwhile, concerted efforts from all sectors seem to be what will help reduce drastically or stop this vice.