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Dignity Kits Can Change Lives: Responding to the needs of women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic

Josephine Ncube (20) is one of the many homeless women and girls who were moved from the streets to a safe facility by the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) when the COVID-19 lockdown began. Now temporarily housed at the National Training Centre for Rural Women in Harare, Josephine says the hardest part of living on the streets was managing her menstrual period.

 “My menstrual period times were the worst – I would pick up pieces of newspaper from garbage bins or when I was lucky, I used pieces of cloth, also from garbage bins. I didn’t even have underwear and this made that time of the month unbearable.”

COVID-19 Infection Prevention Control (IPC) measures, including the protracted lockdown and movement restrictions, indirectly impacted on Gender Based Violence (GBV), with the national hotline recording an overall increase of 75% compared to pre-lockdown trends (March – June).

While 90% of the recorded cases are intimate partner violence, the socio-economic impact of the lockdown cannot be overlooked, including the stress and anxiety that goes with the now rising unemployment, loss of income and mobility confinement.  As a result, a number of vulnerable women and girls require safety nets now more than ever.  To accommodate such women, shelters have been identified in communities managed by the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development (MOWACSMED).   

To support the women and girls to maintain their dignity during the lockdown, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) distributed dignity kits to the National Training Centre, which is accommodating Josephine and other homeless women and girls. The government department also distributed dignity kits to OSCs supported around the country.

The Minister of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development, Dr. Sithembiso Nyoni appreciated the 304 dignity kits meant for GBV survivors.

"With economic difficulties resulting from the lockdown and movement restrictions, dignity kits will assist vulnerable families with budget substitution to purchase more important items like food. It will also lessen burden on families competing for resources which may fuel Gender Based Violence” Dr. Nyoni said.

A basic dignity kit consists of reusable and disposable sanitary pads, underwear, soap, soap dish, toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, a flashlight and washing powder.

It is amazing how these seemingly small things can change the lives of individuals not just temporarily, but forever. This was evident in this centre housing the vulnerable girls and women during this time.

 “While I am grateful for the dignity kit, for me, the most important items are the disposable sanitary pads and underwear,” Josephine says with gratitude. “It is now easier to keep clean.”

Beauty Mahachi (22) who has lived on the streets of Harare since 2015 and is also currently accommodated at the National Training Centre says every woman deserves a dignity kit to ‘maintain her dignity without difficulty.’

“I am so happy I can now brush my teeth; I cannot remember the last time I did this – that is the life on the streets, we live anyhow. I can also now bath; I have the soap – I do not have reason at all to be filthy,” says Josephine.

“It is humiliating to be on the streets without toiletries, we are often at the mercy of the men on the streets and other people who make promises to assist us. Having this dignity kit and a roof over my head feels like I have taken my power back.”

A Social Welfare officer, Priscilla Nhangara, who is taking care of the women and girls at the National Training Centre says the dignity kits made truly made a difference in the lives of many women and girls.

“The dignity kit is packed with essentials for these vulnerable women and girls, enabling them to take care of their hygiene – this makes them secure, but also protects them from further exposure to Gender Based Violence as they no longer have to scrounge for toiletries from potential perpetrators.” 

Priscilla reveals that, from a total of 31 women and girls, only 9 have remained at the facility while the rest have been reintegrated into the community and returned back home.  

The GBV response during COVID-19 pandemic entails ensuring continuation of life-saving essential GBV services during the COVID-19 lockdown and movement restrictions. Through close collaboration with the national COVID-19 response task force, MOWACSMED and UNFPA with support of donors including Britain, Sweden, Ireland and the European Union have successfully advocated for the inclusion of GBV services among essential services, and ensured clearance and freedom of movement of GBV service providers.

 The COVID19 pandemic has been an eye opener for how one has to look at the nexus between development and the emerging humanitarian needs, and how different partners can support the COVID-19 response within their different mandates to complement efforts that are ongoing nationally.

UNFPA has supported provision of IPC equipment to the 8 supported GBV community based shelters and 5 static OSCs across the country. UNFPA has also scaled up remote psychosocial support through the national GBV Hotline and enhanced mobile service provision through mobile OSCs in the most remote and hard to reach areas. All of these services remain open and available to survivors during the protracted lockdown.

UNFPA Zimbabwe Country Representative, Dr. Esther Muia says UNFPA continues to partner and work with various stakeholders, donors, government and non-state actors to address the sexual reproductive health needs of women and girls as well as putting in place measures to prevent and respond to GBV in emergencies.

“Dignity kits continue to represent a mitigation strategy for addressing women’s dignity while responding to gender based violence, especially at times of emergencies including the global COVID-19 crisis. In situations such as these we find, community structures are disrupted and that limited availability of personal items can lead to negative coping strategies such as transactional sex and early marriage that expose young girls to HIV and teenage pregnancies.”

The dignity kits that were distributed were stockpiled last year under the Zero Tolerance for GBV 365, a programme funded by the governments of Sweden and Ireland, while service provision through the mobile OSCs is conducted with funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

“We would like to express gratitude to all our partners as we continue to work together with them and others to reach out to the needs of the many women and girls in Zimbabwe. We look forward to continued collaboration and broadened partnerships towards Zero Gender Based Violence. Our efforts must ensure we leave no one behind as we change lives of women and girls, especially living under difficult conditions,” said Dr Muia.