October 7, 2020

The Unending Scourge of COVID-19 in Exacerbating Sexual and Domestic Violence—Considerations in Africa & the USA

When the first incident of COVID-19 was announced in Wuhan, China, most people were not thinking about the impact the virus would have on sexual and domestic violence across the globe. Sadly, as some victims are battling COVID-19, they—and many others—are faced with the peril of sexual and domestic violence.

While the focus of world governments and public health officials has mainly been to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, little attention has been given to curbing the burgeoning public health harms around sexual and domestic violence that have increased in its wake.

We've seen responses to COVID-19—now we need to see responses for the effects of COVID-19, including increased sexual and domestic violence. Click To Tweet

Early on in the pandemic, Haley McNamara—VP at NCOSE and director of ICOSE—extrapolated rightfully that the pandemic would pose an adverse risk for victims of commercialized sexual exploitation (e.g. sex trafficking and prostitution). As the lockdown has continued, direct services and exit opportunities for victims have been cut off even though many are in dire need of assistance,  Also worrisome is that data on sexual violence is likely going underreported due to victims being inhibited from reaching out for help while under the constant watchful eye of their abusers.

The world-wide pandemic has posed greater risk for victims of sex trafficking and prostitution. Supporting direct services during this time is essential. Click To Tweet

An aspect of sexual violence that has at times been overlooked in most parts of Africa is marital rape, although most African States do have laws against it.  With COVID-19, which now keeps husbands and wives together for longer periods of time, some women have come forward to indicate that their spouses have used the lockdowns as an alibi for sexually abusing them. In Ghana, for example, it has been reported that some women are calling on the president to put a halt to the lockdown as their husbands were demanding too much of sex from them against their will while in quarantine.

Child or early marriage, too, is expected to be on the increase in many places as the result of schools being closed and children staying at home.  The more children who are out of school, the higher the likelihood  that they will be susceptible to sexual violence. The World Bank recognizes that by keeping children in school reduces the chances of getting married before 18 by five percent. Early and forced marriage come with consequences such as: unwanted child, pregnancy, increased STIs, illiteracy, poverty, and troubling trends in child and maternal mortality rates. These concerns have all been overshadowed by the Coronavirus in 2020.

Marital rape and child marriage are increasing in Africa in the wake of COVID-19. Click To Tweet

As sexual violence takes a toll on victims, domestic violence also continues to create havoc. Katie Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Hotline warned recently that abusers are using COVID-19 as a pretext to keep their spouses away from friends and to  deprive their spouses of financial support. Additionally, in Liberia, some police and security officers who should be serving as protectors for women have abused them for violating curfews put in place by the Government as the result of the lockdowns. For example, police reportedly got in a fist fight with one woman as the result of a heated argument and another lady was brutalized by police officers for parking her car after curfew hours. These incidents went viral on social media thanks to outrage from the public, but there are strong indications that law enforcement enforcers will continue to brutalize women as long as no punitive actions are taken against them for their actions.

It is true that social distancing and lockdown are important practices in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless if steps are not taken now to pay more attention to sexual and domestic violence, then they will continue to cause innumerable physical, psychological, emotional consequences for many and even death for some.

It is even more important to pay attention to victims of sexual and domestic violence during this time of social distancing and lockdown. Click To Tweet

The battle against COVID-19 can be fought alongside combating sexual and domestic violence. For this to happen, service providers must be supported, governments must be proactive, hotlines must be reachable at all times, and victims and potential victims must speak out and, when they do speak out, we must all be ready and willing to listen and take action promptly.

Alvin Winford

Alvin Winford, National Center on Sexual Exploitation Fellow

2020 NCOSE International Fellow / Programme Director, African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect

Alvin has over 18 years of working on anti-exploitation efforts in Africa. Reared by a single mother in Liberia, he faced the harsh reality of a patriarchy and harmful cultural practices which are detrimental to the wellbeing of women and children. It was at that point that he realized that he must challenge the power and control wheel so that women and children are protected against all forms of exploitation.  He believes that when children, women and men are protected against exploitation and perpetrators are accountable for their actions; sexual violence would be adequately addressed. And this niche of standing for the vulnerable connects him to the values of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

Coming to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, he is of the view that he will learn so much that would enhance his work in educating duty bearers, care givers and right holders on the harms of pornography and sexual exploitation. Also, he comes at a time when the National Center is elevating its programs at international level which he would serve as one of the catalysts in preventing and responding to sexual exploitation across Africa. He is an ideal advocate, facilitator and mobilizer against exploitation. He did his undergraduate studies in Mass Communications at the University of Liberia in 2001, and graduate studies in educational administration and supervision at the University of Liberia Graduate Program in Education in 2019.

Alvin is a 2019/2020 Humphrey Fellow sponsored by the United States Department of State. The program brings to the United States the brightest across the world experienced professionals interested in strengthening their leadership skills through a mutual exchange of knowledge and understanding about issues of common concern in the U.S. and Fellows’ home countries, He is presently undergoing studies in “Trafficking in Persons, Policy and Prevention” at the American University Washington College of Law. Alvin comes from Liberia and has worked for many years with the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect as an advocate.

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