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In this short Q&A with the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises – the Minister, Dr. Sithembiso Nyoni outlines Government of Zimbabwe response to Gender Based Violence during COVID-19 pandemic under the EU-funded Spotlight Initiative programme.

Q1: What is the Impact of the new lockdown and curfew measures on mobility for women and girls?

Answer: On Tuesday 17 March 2020, the President of Zimbabwe, His Excellency E. D. Mnangagwa declared the coronavirus pandemic a state of National Disaster and started instituting measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. In recognising the increased risk of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe and the limitations of the public health system, the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) through a Presidential declaration instituted additional measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus such as putting the country under total lockdown, citizens required to stay at home except for essential movement related to seeking health care services, purchase and procurement of food and medicines as well as other essential critical services. In addition, all public transport services have been suspended until further notice except for the Government operated ZUPCO.

The national regulations, restricting movement of people has contributed to the challenges in access to critical services which include access to life-saving gender based violence services and sanitary/ hygiene products for girls and women. The restrictions, in essence, have also meant that existing sources of income have dwindled such that affordability of the sanitary wear/ hygiene products has become a challenge. Similarly, the increasing demand for the products during lockdown has also affected the costs as the few active suppliers have manipulated the limited access to the products by communities, which has also meant that access to income is a huge determinant on the particular sanitary/ hygiene product that girls and women use. In an assessment conducted by the Ministry 64% of respondents said they have continued to buy sanitary/ hygiene products from shops, whilst 18% indicated that they have resorted to using cloth as an alternative. This is reflective of the financial challenges faced by communities as the cloth, being a conventional substitute, tends to expose girls and women to urinary tract infections. The cloth is also undesirable as it comes with the need for clean water and soap.

The Ministry in partnership with Plan International undertook a rapid gender assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls and the measures in place to manage it. Our key questions were: How have the (lockdown) measures impacted women and girls – including those from vulnerable groups; and How are they coping with the strain of an uncertain future? The paragraphs below provide a summary of some of the findings from this rapid assessment:

  • The assessment identified the different needs, roles, experiences, vulnerabilities, gender, and inclusion barriers that influence vulnerabilities and capacities for women, men, boys, and girls in all their diversities in the face of COVID-19. It also assessed specific SRHR challenges and needs that Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Most respondents do not have access to their livelihood activities during the period of COVID-19. They stated that the restrictions imposed by the lockdown and enforced by the Government of Zimbabwe made it very difficult for them to conduct their income generating activities without risking arrest. At least 83.4% of the respondents said that their households could not sufficiently meet their families’ basic needs during the COVID-19 induced lockdown period. Most said they lived from hand to mouth, and in the absence of income from their informal sector activities, they found it extremely difficult to meet all the basic food, health and hygiene needs during the period.
  • Livelihoods of communities were brought to a halt by the lockdown as most people are employed in the informal sector, which has remained closed. Key Informants in Kwekwe, Bulawayo and Chipinge highlighted that there is a lot of fear, uncertainty about their jobs and domestic violence has increased due to being idle at home. Also due to irritation and lack of food and financial instability violence continues to increase. Experience indicates that more women than men have insecure livelihoods, with women often relying on male partners for financial support, and they are the most likely to be at the receiving end of violence resulting from lack of food and money. Economic stressors can increase tensions within intimate relationships and disrupt gender roles; for example, men who fail to fill their gender role as providers are more likely to resort to violence as an outlet.
  • Social norms that place the burden of household financial security on men, increase pressure for them to provide food and resources, but with the limitations of the lockdown, men do not have a way of fulfilling this expectation. Patriarchal practices discourage men and boys from expressing their emotions in “feminine” ways like seeking counselling or crying, so the likelihood of resorting to violence is increased. Efforts to engage men on how to manage frustration, should be part of a comprehensive SGBV response.
  • Restrictive measures to counter the spread of the virus have significantly altered public and social life.  Women have been hit harder by the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and they face greater risk of domestic violence during confinement. While their unpaid care burden has increased dramatically, access to health services has decreased.
  • Children are also trapped in this vicious cycle of violence as witnesses and/or victims. Women and girls are the worst affected in these circumstances. While schools generally provide safe shelter for children, these have been closed indefinitely further locking them within homes.

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission in the article “A Gender Crisis within the Covid-19 Pandemic One Month after National Lockdown” acknowledged that Sexual and Gender-Based Violence have been reported to be on the increase during this lockdown. The article indicated that Musasa and Padare reported an unprecedented increase in GBV namely domestic violence manifesting in physical, sexual, psychological, and economic abuse among family members. Musasa, for example, reported that they had attended to more than 1200 reports at the end of April, more than double the usual per month. Padare, the Men’s Forum on Gender Equality, reported that during the same period, they had received more than 50 reports of domestic violence on men since the lockdown started, a stark increase. While the ZRP registered a reduced number of reports since the lockdown, they acknowledged that this might be due to lack of mobility for survivors. The situation for survivors, mainly women and girls, becomes desperate, as abusers are locked-up with their victims while limited mobility reduces the usual access to external assistance.

Q2: What is the Ministry’s role, especially as the host Government Ministry for Spotlight, and the GBV Sub- Cluster Co-coordinator, to ensure continuity of GBV services and mobility of staff and survivors? What provisions/measures are in place to ensure that survivors get to emergency services during the curfew period?

Answer: It has been 5 months since COVID-19 was declared a state of National Disaster in Zimbabwe. It is known that in such humanitarian situations, existing disparities and inequalities amplify, with women often being hit hardest by effects of such emergencies. Responding to GBV in humanitarian settings is critical.

In addressing the challenge of increasing cases of Gender Based Violence, we have ensured that partners continue to offer GBV Services by having these declared 'critical' and 'essential' services. The Ministry has facilitated clearance of GBV Service providers to enable them to continue to offer services throughout the country. Toll free lines have been expanded to make sure that even those that do not find it easy to travel can signal the need for service and a partner can reach out to them. Our One Stop Centres (OSCs) and partner-run shelters continue to offer GBV services. In addition, where there are no static OSCs, the Ministry is implementing mobile OSCs which are taking services to the people. These have been well received and an example is in Chegutu District, where within the first 12 days of mobile outreach, they managed to assist 223 GBV survivors.

We continue to encourage the sharing of information about how to report and where to get help to enable survivors of GBV to access holistic services (health, psychosocial support, legal and police services) under one roof. Where they cannot be provided under one roof, there should be a coordinated multi-sectoral approach with identified partners providing specific services in a coordinated manner.

Key institutions such as the Police and other stakeholders have been engaged to accommodate the movement of victims to access services. The ZRP Victim Friendly Unit has made efforts to ensure that police officers manning roadblocks have been instructed to allow passage to women survivors of GBV who are travelling to seek services.

Most importantly, we must remember that according to Section 52 of our Constitution, every Zimbabwean citizen has a right to personal security and bodily integrity. We will continue to work with and coordinate our stakeholders to ensure that GBV services remain available.

This article was first published in the Spotlight Initiative bi-weekly newsletter.