Ten months since the coronavirus first emerged, communities around the world still face stay-at-home orders, school closures, and travel restrictions. These policies have led to increased sexual and gender-based violence. While the U.N. secretary-general and heads of state have paid unprecedented attention to this issue, translating political rhetoric into action has proven more difficult. As the pandemic drags on, governments, security actors, and civil society need to rethink how to protect women and girls during lockdowns. While the situation is dire, an opportunity does exist. In Nigeria, where massive protests against police brutality broke out in October, civil society and police are adapting their efforts to address both gender-based violence and the pandemic.
A look at the statistics worldwide offers a grim picture. A new International Rescue Committee study reported that since the start of the pandemic 73 percent of women interviewed across East Africa, West Africa and the African Great Lakes region reveal an increase in intimate partner violence. In Nigeria, the Lagos state government domestic and sexual violence response team reported a three-fold increase in gender-based violence incidents in the first month of the pandemic. This bleak situation is only expected to worsen as COVID lockdowns continue or are reinstated. For every three months lockdowns continue, the U.N. population fund estimates an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence globally.
So, what can be done? It will be critical for approaches to address the risk factors that the pandemic has exacerbated, including economic stress, limited social services, and restricted education and food programs. In Jos, Nigeria, USIP’s Justice and Security Dialogue (JSD) program has continued to engage police, government officials, and civil society throughout the COVID-19 crisis to address the factors that drive gender-based violence.
In Jos, dialogues and discussions with community and religious leaders, women, civil society organizations, and youth groups have revealed increased reports of rape, intimate partner violence, family abandonment, transactional sex, and child marriage. Since the pandemic, the local police station has been overwhelmed with cases of sexual and gender-based violence with an average of 15 cases per week. One of the biggest drivers has been the economic strain and food insecurity among families during the pandemic.
The economic impact of the pandemic has been severe. The Nigerian government made efforts to ensure necessities like food were provided for people who lost their jobs or income during the COVID-19 lockdown, but its efforts were not sufficient. The government initially distributed food and other critical goods, but mismanagement and miscommunication kept these goods from reaching everyone in need. Under these strained economic conditions, parents and their female children, in particular, were forced to choose between safety and survival. The economic assistance announced by the government exposed inadequacies in Nigeria’s social protection systems and increased risks of violence for the poor, especially women and girls.
Most families depend on the informal economy and community members, particularly women, rely on daily profits from petty trading or other economic activity to feed their families. Closures of markets and reduced economic activity hit this population particularly hard. Adding to this strain, school closures left children at home without access to school feeding programs. A mother of five asked her neighbors in a community dialogue, “Before COVID-19, my children were at least sure to have one good meal at school and one manageable dinner, but now, nothing, nothing … what do I do?”
In dialogue sessions, community members discussed how some families were forced to devise survival strategies during the pandemic—though many coping mechanisms came at the cost of girls’ safety. Participants shared stories of three children, ages 8-11, running away from home out of fear of hunger and abuse. Community members reported five incidents of girls who alleged incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse or were forced into prostitution as a source of income for the family. Community members also reported that school closures had led to increased child marriages. One mother told the dialogue group, “It became so difficult for my husband and I to feed our eight children, that we decided to marry off our first daughter who is in secondary school. At least she and her husband can support us.”
COVID-19, combined with already entrenched discriminatory gender norms, has hampered efforts to address sexual and gender-based violence during the lockdown by seriously limiting the services of hospitals and the justice system. But, those who have participated in JSD dialogues, including community and religious leaders, women and youth groups, and civil society organizations, are working with the police and other social service providers to address sexual and gender-based violence in the pandemic with new, creative, and contextualized responses.
- Increasing police-community partnerships. In 2019, with the help of USIP partners, police in Jos launched the city’s first dedicated unit to investigate sexual and gender-based crimes, known as the gender desk. The gender desk aims to improve victims’ experiences with the police and connect survivors with service providers for more effective and holistic responses to sexual violence, including psycho-social support, emergency housing, and legal services. Seeing the increasing gender-based violence reports during the pandemic, JSD participants stepped in to provide a dedicated hotline for counseling services and a gender desk emergency number. In addition to providing additional support for victims of gender-based violence and their families, JSD partners also worked with the police to ensure officers were operating safely in line with Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control’s guidelines by providing facemasks, hand sanitizer, daily cleaning, and police station sanitization.
- Prioritizing community-led public awareness campaigns. With misinformation rampant about contracting the coronavirus, JSD participants launched a public information campaign on combating COVID-19 and gender-based violence. The campaign contextualized general information and identified available resources specifically for the Jos community, filling a gap left by national campaigns. Public messaging on flyers, through Whatsapp groups, and on the radio raised awareness about sexual and gender-based violence, including information on where victims can seek help, alongside information on preventing and seeking treatment for COVID-19. USIP partners also launched a radio drama series titled “Tuna dani” (“Think Me”). The series discussed the various risk factors of sexual and gender-based violence, how community members can support survivors and victim’s families, pathways for justice, and important health topics related to the coronavirus.
- Community-led advocacy for policy change. Finally, while service provision and community education are critical, policy change is also needed. Through national and state-wide protest, JSD partners like the Human Rights Commission and the Federation of International Women Lawyers utilized the opportunity that COVID-19 provided to sustain advocacy for the Plateau state government to strengthen legislation protecting women and girls from violence. In response, the Plateau government prioritized actions against sexual violence. For example, the governor convened a committee to address this violence and directed the attorney general and commissioner of justice to increase the prosecution of offenders, no matter their social status. Additionally, a sexual offenders’ register will be opened to the public with the data of convicted offenders captured, and their identity made public.
Before the pandemic, sexual violence had not ranked high as a security issue on the global stage. If nothing else, COVID-19 has put a spotlight on this issue, raising awareness of its prevalence and bringing together diverse actors in a unified demand for change. To sustain this momentum and turn rhetoric into action, there is a need for a significant shift in how the Nigerian government, police, and others work together to understand and address sexual violence as a security issue. As Nigerian police work to repair strained relationships in the wake of nationwide protests, they must look to communities as critical partners in their efforts to address sexual violence. USIP’s JSDs have connected police, community members, civil society and other service providers to not only work toward better addressing the pandemic, but also responding to the unintended harms that women and girls have experienced. As the pandemic drags on, this type of collective action should be adopted in communities around the world.
Isioma Kemakolam is the Nigeria coordinator for the Justice and Security Dialogues project at the U.S. Institute of Peace.