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Sexual and gender-based violence: Hidden social pandemic under radar of COVID-19 lockdown

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PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, there has been a spike of domestic and gender-based violence worldwide. Countries with higher GDPs such as Sweden or lower GDPs as Sudan, are not spared the raging havoc left in the wake of COVID-19 across states, cities, towns, and rural areas. Countries with lockdowns, partial or full, are recording spikes in domestic and gender-based violence. In response to this, the United Nations has raised alarm regarding the increase of reported cases directly attributed to forced proximity occasioned by lockdowns.

Gender-based violence is violence directed against a person because of their gender. This makes it a human rights violation. Although both women and men experience gender-based violence, the majority of victims are women and girls, often rooted in power inequalities between men and women.

In Nigeria, we are just starting to see the effects of the lockdown. In Yobe, a husband chopped off his wife’s right hand because she had gone to a wedding he had not approved for her to go while the lockdown is still in effect. The woman is currently being treated at the State Hospital in Yobe.

In Delta State, during an interview with the Chairperson of FIDA, Barr. Stella Mejulu, she explained that in the last week of March, four weeks into the lockdown, she went to court over a case of homicide where a woman was murdered. She also noted that rape and molestation of minors involving high profile older men and patricide were also on the rise.

In Warri, while meditating over a case of domestic violence between a couple, the Chairperson FIDA, Barr. Stella Mejulu narrates how Sharon was pushed, almost naked, out of the home she shares with her husband. She is 30-years-old and pregnant with their first baby in its trimester. Her husband, 36-year-old Godspower, was angry with her and said she will remain outside for 2-3 hours until he is satisfied that was enough punishment for her before he would let her back into their home. Sometimes he beats her even in her current state. Her offence? Godspower says Sharon “talks too much, food is never ready, and she allows her mother to interfere in our marriage.”

Sharon and Godspower domestic violence incidence is not an isolated case. Every week in Nigeria, domestic violence, sexual and gender-based violence: rape, molestation, defilement, sexual assault, early marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, or trafficking in persons is published in the media or on social media. The perpetrators are often males: fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, teachers, friends, neighbors, or male mentors. In interviews with NGOs and CSOs such as DSVRT and Mirabel Centre, an increasing number of women perpetrated violence has been found, raising the question: why?

In an interview with Dr. Abiola Akiode-Afolabi and during an interactive webinar session by WARDC, WRAPPA and WILPF on dealing with GBV during COVID-19 lockdown highlighted that in Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, since the lockdown, the most common gender-based violence reports recorded include spousal violence, landlord-tenant violence, neighbor-to-neighbor violence, parent-children abuse, homeowner-house help violence, boyfriend-girlfriend violence, violence on widows, police-sex worker violence, police-citizen violence, visitor-caught-in-lock-down child rape.

The Domestic and Gender Violence Response Team (DSVRT) in Lagos has been inundated with cases of sexual and domestic violence. The office, once structured around face-to-face interactions has moved online via phones, social media, 24/7 web chat to service people who need help getting out of an abusive environment. In the wake of this level of emergencies, online mediations have become necessary. In exceptional cases, the team goes out to rescue children that may have been abused, and women that need assistance in abusive relationships. According to the Coordinator of Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, on average DSRVT receives 13 new cases daily. That is a total of 390 case incidence in the month of March alone. According to her, the increase hits 60% domestic violence, 30% sexual violence, and 10% Physical Child Abuse.

A study commissioned by the ministry of women’s affairs and social development and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) Nigeria, with support from the Norwegian Government, found out that 28% of Nigerian women aged 25-29 have experienced some form of physical violence since age 15. The study also reports that 15% of women experienced physical violence within 12 months, while 25% of married women or those living with their spouses have experienced violence. The most common acts of violence against women in Nigeria include sexual harassment, physical violence, harmful traditional practices, emotional and psychological violence, socio-economic violence, and violence against non-combatant women in conflict situations.

Unfortunately, due to lack of structural social service systems in place in Nigeria, access to hotlines, shelters, civil society groups, and non-government organizations specialized in providing support and legal expertise is far and in between, or non-existent. Reports on gender-based violence have more than doubled. According to the founding director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Dr. Abiola Akiode-Afolabi “The lockdown itself has become the trigger. From what we have been seeing in terms of statistics of the COVID-19 spread across the world, the lockdown has become a major challenge in the sense that women who ordinarily go to work in the morning and come back in the evening are now being locked down with an abuser they’ve been living with and have been trying as much as possible to avoid overtime. From the statistics we see across the world, for example, South Africa had an increase of almost 87,000 reports within 4-6 weeks of the lockdown. In Nigeria, the Domestic Violence Referral Centre in Lagos reported about a 35% increase.”

{FILE) A woman carries a placard as she shouts a slogan during the “walk against rape'” procession organised by “Project Alert”, a Lagos-based NGO focusing on women’s issues, in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos October 5, 2011. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

In Cote D’Ivoire where the government’s response to COVID-19 is a partial lockdown, Barbara Sangare, a facilitator in the country observed that intimate gender violence has increased. She explained in an interview that a woman was thrown from the third floor of a tall building after being beaten late at night by her partner. Due to the nation’s curfew, she could not get help until the police came to pick her up in the morning. In many homes where there are abusive partners, many women feel trapped and helpless dealing with social issues at home. Getting help, support, and intervention in family crises have become increasingly difficult.

Caroline Peters, a Gender and Community Advocate in South Africa, during a webinar organized by WARDC, WRAPPA and WILPF explained that violence against women has gone up 70%. Xenophobic attacks against foreign women who are refugees or asylum seekers have increased and gangsterism within many homes has become high with husbands beating and compelling their wives to fund their drug habits and violent behavior. Withdrawal symptoms among men who are users is commonplace. Because they no longer have access to their drugs, they lash out on their wives and children within the home. 

The lockdown has made it difficult for women to easily and quickly reach the police. The walking distance to the police station and delayed response from the police is a big challenge. Without money to pay the police and without proper legal and literacy support, reporting a case and filing paperwork at the police station is also a cumbersome affair for the average woman.  A woman’s state of mind at that point and a possible battling feeling of self-worth makes her even more vulnerable at the police station. Caroline says lack of GBV hotlines to get help is a big challenge. And when women get access to intervention phone lines, they find it difficult to speak on the phone because their abuser is only an earshot away, leaving many women to suffer in silence. Although Whatsapp is one of the cheapest communication tools to reach out for help, lack of data, and internet access make it difficult for abused women to seek help in communities where these are absent. Gina Nzengue, a radio presenter in Gabon and Fellow of YALI continues to work full time despite the complete lockdown in Gabon so she can keep a pulse and be the voice of people who use radio to reach out for help. She says: “economic and psychological violence are the most common effects of the lockdown in Gabon, as all cities in the country are under lockdown.” Complains are rife from radio callers who say hotlines provided by the government are not being picked up, leaving many disillusioned about help coming their way. She explains that persons with health issues are the most vulnerable despite the president’s approved fund of 2.1 billion made available to be given to economically weak people for a 6 month period. The impact she says is yet to be felt.

GBV enabling factors that change the dynamics
There are key indicators when it comes to cases of domestic violence. Titilola Vivour-Adeniji, the coordinator of DSVRT, explains that “We must remember that domestic violence thrives because one party wants to control or dominate the other. You have instances where because there’s a lack of control, you now have the violence that is meted out in the form of physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, economic, or otherwise.”

She further highlighted that reasons given for domestic violence range from lack of effective communication between parties, unrealistic expectations of marriage, or lack of sexual satisfaction. The inability to express lack of sexual satisfaction can degenerate to violence. Other reasons include financial pressure or burdens. In some cases when a financially empowered woman is in a relationship with a partner with lower income and low self-esteem – this power dynamic can become an issue with a partner already suffering from low self-esteem coupled with poor communication.

While these reasons shine a light on the why domestic violence happens, Titilola Vivour-Adeniji is quick to point out that “Domestic violence often does not occur because the person provoked the abuser, it happens because the person is an abuser, one who cannot control his or her anger or temperament.” Using the words ‘triggers’ or ‘provoke buttons’ merely puts the blame on the victims rather than call out the abuser. “There’s a danger in the rhetoric that the abuser was provoked and therefore, can be excused for being abusive as a response. It shifts the attention from the abuser to the victim or survivor.”

Titilola Vivour-Adeniji shared some red flags often displayed by an abuser disposed towards gender-based violence often include showing an undue sense of possessiveness where the abuser is overly jealous of friends of a partner and time away from them. Acts of embarrassing or shaming, controlling all financial decisions, making their partner feel worthless or guilty for all the problems in the relationship. Sometimes an abuser will deliberately isolate their partner from their support system such as family.  Feeling of being intimidated, being afraid of your partners’ reactions, pressure from a partner to have sex, or being accused of unfaithfulness are serious signs and red flags. When a partner kicks, shoves, restrains or throws their partner’s things outside, prevents the partner from taking a job or going to school, manipulates their partner into doing things that feel wrong or harmful, lack of trust, being prohibited from spending money on family members, are clear signs of an abusive environment. When a partner threatens to withhold money or resources and treats domestic staff or family with cruelty, all these are some signs of an abuser.

Titilola Vivour-Adeniji explained that DSVRT has an end-to-end response process for managing sexual and domestic violence reports that help to facilitate response times to victims.

End-to-end process: Domestic violence response clock

  • A case is reported either via the phone or it is a direct walk-in
  • Officer takes down information and based on the information supplied, comes up with a case management scenario for the client. E.g client says: feels life is in danger or feels threatened
  • A referral is then made to the police station liaising with the family support unit there to ensure if possible the perpetrator is prosecuted or where necessary a restraining order application is made through the courts
  • For a domestic violence case, if the client says “I want the alleged perpetrator to be called to order and want the beating to stop because I am still interested in the marriage”, DSVRT deploys mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution where both parties are invited and come in for the mediation. Details or the resolution is deduced into writing and it is signed by both parties and the official witnesses it
  • However, if parties are interested in the relationship, they are exposed to psychosocial support counseling in managing issues on forgiving, moving on, developing coping skills, improving their communications, etc., which were initially lacking that may have been absent and persisted during the violence saga

 

End-to-end process: Sexual violence response clock

  • A case of sexual violence is reported over the telephone or a walk-in case
  • Medical attention is the first response. The victim is immediately taken to the nearest primary health care center or closest sexual assault referral center, especially if the abused presents themselves within the golden hour within the first 72 hours of the incident
  • Referrals are made to the closest Family Support Unit so that investigation can commence, and liaison is established with the health facilities to ensure that proper documentation is done and the survivor is able to have access to medical provisions
  • Where necessary DSVRT facilitate the arrest or investigation process to ensure that the case is charged to court or the suspect is remanded for a case of defilement or sexual assault
  • Liaise with the directorate of public prosecution in the ministry of justice to follow up on the process
  • Where necessary, appear in court with the client

In the instance where a victim or survivor needs other reliefs, like empowerment, relocation, or perhaps education of a child is affected, or child may need to be moved to another school, all these services are rendered at the DSVRT.

Other reliefs include the use of restraining order to restrain the abuser from perpetuating any other forms of violence :

  • Restraining the abuser from entering the shared residence
  • Further restraining of the abuser from touching or perpetrating violence
  • Further Restraining the abuser or agents who are privies from perpetuating any other forms of violence
  • A restraining order can also be extended to the place of work for recalcitrant abusers who prefers to cause havoc and constitute themselves as a nuisance knowing fully well that organizations will be quick to ask victim or survivor and abuser to go out from the office premises to sort their family issues. This has often led to cases where survivors have been placed on indefinite leave and lost their jobs as a result of that
  • Monetary reliefs can be obtained, finances that have been lost as a result of the violence if the survivor had to leave the home, the abuser can be made to pay rent, pay off mortgages or loans, provide maintenance for the children,
  • Issues of custody can also be addressed and many other benefits or reliefs can also be addressed if they approach the courts.

 

The role of the police in tackling this epidemic is crucial. Titilola Vivour-Adeniji also pointed out that “Domestic violence is a criminal allegation.” To enable the expediency of such reliefs, she explains that the role of the police is to investigate and where necessary prosecute, adding that “Over the years, we’ve been partnering with the police force Lagos State Police Command to assist in the upgrading of Family Support Units (FSUs) to add 10 in the state. We currently have 12 FSUs in Lagos State. In these efforts, we have designated police officers that have been trained to provide this service to treat victims and survivors with empathy and professionalism that each case deserves. We work with the FSUs so that once cases are referred, the whole referral pathway, the whole protocol will be adhered to at the FSUs level.”

This Outbreak story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Code for Africa‘s WanaData women data science initiative

 

 

 

 

 


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