Manase Kudzai Chiweshe (Department of Social and Community Development, University of Zimbabwe) and
Sandra Bhatasara (Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development Institute, University of Zimbabwe)
Tracy (a pseudonym) describes to us a scene of abuse by those on whom the state has bestowed power—police officers during the COVID-19 lockdowns in Epworth (a resource poor community on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare). Tracy is a sex worker whose livelihood depends on being in public spaces usually beyond curfew times. The police and soldiers patrolling the area, however, have a zero tolerance to curfew breakers like Tracy, yet hunger and poverty forces her to be outside. Her inability to pay the bribe through cash is quickly turned into vulnerability to sextortion. The police and soldiers will come to her place later in the night to collect payment by sexual means. This narrative highlights the multiple and diverse forms of sexual and gender based violence suffered by women occupying different spaces in Zimbabwe under COVID-19 lockdowns. These stories of pain and violence place into context the human (albeit in this case female) toll of state responses to pandemics and how they produce and reproduce violence in private and public domains. Responses built on semi-authoritarian “one size fits all” approaches that fail to understand the intersectional contexts that shape women’s (in particular survivors of SGBV) everyday experiences. In this Intervention we highlight the various ways in which COVID-19 has exposed how responses, institutions, and processes focused on combating SGBV are prone to disruption under pandemics leaving survivors vulnerable and increasing instances of secondary trauma through failure to access key services. Responses to COVID-19, in particular lockdowns to contain the virus through limiting human population movement, coincided with a sharp increase in SGBV across the world. Invariably, access to sexual and reproductive health services, safe spaces, and justice delivery mechanisms was also curtailed as these were not considered as essential services when countries imposed hard lockdowns. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated SGBV against women and girls and led to new forms of violence. UNICEF also reported in March 2020 that children were facing heightened risk of abuse because of COVID-19.
This briefing is based on original research work conducted in urban Harare funded by the Antipode Foundation under the “Right to the Discipline” programme. The research focused on providing an intersectional analysis of how COVID-19 lockdowns in Zimbabwe shaped the experiences of women in low-income urban communities. Qualitative research was undertaken in Mbare and Epworth to provide the so much needed empirical data on how the pandemic has re-configured women’s lives in novel and deeply gendered ways. The research highlights how age, class, marital status, location, and other factors shaped women’s experiences with sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), access to sexual and reproductive health and justice delivery services in a context of limited movement due to lockdowns. The study utilised in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and key informant interviews. A total of 50 women were purposively selected from youths, women with disabilities, survivors of SGBV, sex workers and women in the informal sector. Sampling for the women was aided by working with community development volunteers who have intimate knowledge of women participating in various gender related projects in Mbare and Epworth. Key informants in the study included Victim Friendly Unit police officers in Mbare, the Miss Deaf Pride Zimbabwe Trust, Padare Men’s Forum on Gender, community health workers, and academics.
The levels of SGBV spiked in Zimbabwe as households were placed under the increased constraints that came from concerns of health, psychosocial support, and loss of income, with many women and girls under lockdown with their abusers. Women and girls who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination were already at higher risk of violence, which COVID-19 is exacerbating. In Zimbabwe, the Musasa Project national GBV hotline “recorded a total of 6,832 GBV calls from the beginning of the lockdown on 30 March until the end of December (1,312 in April, 915 in May 2020, 779 in June, 753 in July, 766 in August, 629 in September, 546 in October, and 567 in November and 565 in December), with an overall average increase of over 40 per cent compared to the pre-lockdown trends. About 94 per cent of the calls are from women”. In these cases, 69.5% of identifiable perpetrators were intimate partners highlighting how SGBV within domestic space places women in jeopardy under COVID-19 lockdowns which restricted movement beyond the sphere of abuse. In terms of the impact of the lockdown on young girls, the closure of schools had multiple negative effects. Discussions with parents in Epworth and Mbare in our research highlighted an increase in early sexual activity especially among young girls. This was forced sexual activity perpetuated by both the youth and older men. There were numerous reported cases of the girls becoming pregnant at a tender age (12-19 years). Malawi, for example, recorded an 11% increase in teenage pregnancies and an additional 13,000 cases of child marriage from January to August 2020, compared to same period in 2019. Evidence elsewhere shows a possible rise in interpersonal violence against adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa during school closures. The school closures under lockdowns ended up affecting girls in many African countries including Zimbabwe, with many dropping out of school at mostly second level in secondary school. In Mbare and Epworth, there were narratives highlighting how some girls ended up in sex work to try and help maintain the family upkeep during the lockdown whilst others due to stresses ended up in drug and substance abuse. Some of the drugs include crystal meth (dombo), kambwa (illicit brew), Broncleer cough medicine (bronco) and marijuana.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) argues that “[b]ecause of pre-existing gender inequalities, deep-rooted discrimination and feminized poverty, the multifaceted consequences of the current [COVID-19] crisis have impacted women more than men, while at the same time placing increased responsibilities on women’s shoulders”. Sex workers faced unique challenges under lockdowns due to the nature of their livelihood activities. In Epworth sex workers highlighted that they could not get clients due to restricted movements. Abuse also came from clients as several women highlighted incidences where they suffered beatings from men especially those who refused to pay after getting the service. This resonates with the view that sex workers in Africa are one of the vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent. They face a host of violations including the discontinuity of their livelihood activities (the nature of their work defies the logic of social distancing) and high levels of stigma and discrimination and criminalisation of their work. Besides SGBV spiking in homes, COVID-19 intertwined with state-sponsored attacks against women in the forms of beatings from the civilian police and army police, and arrests under the guise of enforcing the COVID-19 restrictions. State security agents abducted and tortured more than 50 critics of the government—including women—during pandemic lockdowns.
COVID-19 lockdowns have led to multiple intersectional challenges to accessing services by SGBV survivors. These challenges include the following:
—Access to information: Women in low-income communities were in an information desert in relation to the pandemic and its impacts. Women with disabilities faced further challenges because of the way information was disseminated. Lack of access to disability friendly information on COVID-19 is a major concern they (women with disabilities) must grapple with daily in Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe there was a lack of gender and disability mainstreaming in the responses to COVID-19. The lack of sign language interpretation or Braille information packs meant that women with disabilities were not well informed on critical issues around the pandemic. In any case many institutions including police departments and clinics do not have interpreters readily available to assist women with hearing impairments. UNESCO’s (2020) rapid assessment revealed that there is generally no sign language on television during important briefings on COVID-19 and the visual methods adapted for persons with hearing impairments are not available.
—Access to contraception: For young people access to contraception was also critical during this period mainly because of increased sexual activity. In Zimbabwe, women and girls were not able to access contraceptives due to travel restrictions and menstrual and maternal health services were being sidelined.
—Access to sanitary wear: Difficulties in accessing sanitary wear increased as incomes significantly reduced for most households. A young woman in Epworth narrated that: “When it comes to sanitary wear, they were not readily available and affordable. So, I used rags and clothes.”
—Access to water: Post-2000, Zimbabwe’s urban areas have faced multiple challenges in providing services to residents. These challenges can be attributed to multiple economic and political crises that have seen residents resorting to self-provisioning of social services. COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated this situation in particular shortage of water as demand increased because most people were now spending more time at home. Water points (community boreholes) had increased supply but there were challenges; for example, in Mbare, the police would disperse crowds waiting to fetch water during the first phase of the lockdown.
—Access to justice under lockdowns: Assistance for survivors of gender-based violence was seriously hampered by the lockdowns. The referral pathways system utilised by stakeholders in Zimbabwe was not designed to respond to pandemic contexts. This is mainly because access to police or health centres as the first point of assistance was affected by the restrictions on people’s mobility. In Southern Africa homes became enclaves of cruelty, rape and violence for women and girls trapped with abusive family members and nowhere to report or escape the danger (Amnesty International 2021). In some of the cases, the court processes took long, and perpetrators were able to escape justice.
—Pregnant women and restricted access to care: Elsewhere (Bhatasara and Chiweshe forthcoming) we argue that pregnant women have seen their rights to health violated as there has been defunding and deprioritisation of maternal and child healthcare services. Women’s right to health is compromised by restricted mobility to access health centres and within heath centre environments where healthcare workers are potential sources of coronavirus due to lack of PPE (Tang et al. 2020).
—Sexual minorities under COVID-19: In Zimbabwe sexual minorities have historically faced marginalisation and are vulnerable to harassment and stigma from society and state institutions. Under COVID-19, LGBTQIA+ populations encountered increased barriers to accessing healthcare “due to discrimination, stigmatisation, or healthcare providers’ lack of understanding” of their sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs. This was worsened by the inability to access safe spaces provided by organisations providing services to sexual minorities. “The traumatic emotional and psychological experiences they have faced has resulted in a reduced access to health services in general and sexual and reproductive health services in particular, putting the health of already stigmatised groups at increased risk”.
COVID-19 has reshaped the everyday experiences of survivors of SGBV is urban spaces. These changes require a rethink on emerging forms of SGBV and the appropriateness of current responses focused on providing SRHR and justice delivery services in under resourced communities. The research highlighted how the state was not geared to respond to the unique conditions of a pandemic that forced lockdowns and restricted human movement. In such a context traditional response to SGBV are rendered irrelevant. Narratives from women in Mbare and Epworth highlight the complexities involved in negotiating for rights, space, and livelihoods in a context where the measures instituted by the government restrict you to domestic spaces.
Featured image of Jason Moyo Ave, Harare, Zimbabwe; source: Itaisibanda, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jason_Moyo_ave_Harare.jpg
Amnesty International (2021) “‘Treated Like Furniture’: Gender Based Violence and COVID-19 Response in Southern Africa.” https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr03/3418/2021/en/ (last accessed 19 October 2022)
Bhatasara S and Chiweshe M K (forthcoming) Human Rights Implications of COVID-19 Responses in Africa: Exploring African Women’s Intersectional Experiences of Sexual and Gender Based Violence. Pretoria: Centre for Human Rights
Tang K, Gaoshan J, Ahonsi B, Ali M, Bonet M, Broutet N, Kara E, Kim C, Thorson A and Thwin S S (2020) Sexual and reproductive health (SRH): A key issue in the emergency response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Reproductive Health 17 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-020-0900-9
UNESCO (2020) “Rapid Impact Assessment of COVID-19 on Persons with Disabilities in Zimbabwe.” UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000375260?posInSet=1&queryId=9223b8ff-d3b7-4e1a-802c-cd4b626266f1 (last accessed 19 October 2022)