Even though experts had warned about the increased levels of human rights violations under lockdown, especially within households, it was nevertheless horrific to read in the Daily Monitor article that:
‘2,300 school girls conceive, 128 married off during lockdown’.
And these were just reports from 5 of the 134 districts of Uganda. Not only are the numbers mind boggling, given the short timeframes of the Covid-lockdown, it also seems like the lockdown signified and okayed the breakdown of both the legal and social fabric of our society – in this case with regards to the violation of the vulnerable, especially women and children.
From a leadership point of view, it seems like we have learnt nothing from previous pandemics. It is a well documented fact that crises often provide a fertile ground for criminal activity to flourish, including within homes. Experiences from the 2014-16 Ebola health crisis in Western African countries are a good example. During that pandemic, local communities witnessed a drastic rise in the abuse of children and minors – crimes included: defilement, teenage pregnancies and early marriage. In Sierra Leone, for instance, teenage pregnancies are recorded to have doubled to 14,000 from prior to the outbreak. And this information is on our finger tips, just a click away.
Lessons from Ebola, HIV/Aids and other crises in Africa should have prepared us with the understanding that in times like these, women and girls especially from poor or rural communities are most vulnerable. We also know that several of the factors and cultural practices (for instance cultures that encourage child marriages) worsen during emergency situations like the kavuyo we are seeing during Covid. In such situations, families and community structures and infrastructures breakdown considerably while the focus is usually directed at the meta-level on the more existential issues of survival, again leaving criminals unimpeded.
During such times many factors contribute to the rise in such violations. Economic factors are first on the list of contributing factors. As we have learnt, during previous and current pandemics, a majority of families lose their main source of income – forcing parents to marry off their young daughters (enabling cultural factors) with hopes to reduce mouths to feed and perhaps gain some resources.
Closure of schools due to the lockdown not only leaves the vulnerable young people in danger and in fear of violence, it takes away their escape spaces and access to counselling opportunities. As we know, in our mostly patriarchal societies, the weight of care disproportionately rests on women and girls, not only making them most susceptible to infection, but also makes them easily accessible targets of abuse.
The short term consequences manifest in the dropout from school, child-birth complications (Fistula) and others as mentioned in the Monitor article. Long term consequences may range from lifelong psychological trauma, difficulty in returning to school, a lost generation of female development partners, leaders and decision makers.
It is quite understandable that as the pandemic rages and governments, often strapped for funds and organisational skill, relegate grassroots, marginal communities and groups as well as their issues. But we have to remember that the consequence of such relegation not only promotes a breakdown of social networks and structures that may be difficult to repair, the long term consequences are something we should be concerned about and also act upon urgently.
A collaborative partnership between Government, civil society organisations, religious and cultural leaders need to prevent and respond with short and long term strategies.
Preventive measures need to focus on: Upholding and enforcing human rights; continued awareness raising on reproductive health education during pandemic and lockdown; provision of safe spaces (hotlines) for vulnerable groups and also making sure leaders dialogue with citizens through consultations to better understand the challenges and needs of the people.
To respond, the Government and its relevant development partners and advocacy group should work towards keeping these vulnerable groups in mind especially in the peripheral regions deeply entrenched in retrogressive cultures that condone such abuses. In their roll-out initiatives, please keep in mind the needs, and limitations of all groups especially the marginalised – like don’t send important information only on internet, or WhatsApp as access and ownership mechanisms don’t support every target person.
In the same light, make initiatives, service and safe spaces accessible to the young people during lockdown, like hotlines, or other accessible services, you would have known from the consultations.
Citizens especially abusers should be reminded that defilement and child marriages are criminal and punishable acts. For instance, Section 129 of the penal code says: 129. (1) Any person who performs a sexual act with another person who is below the age of eighteen years, commits a felony known as defilement and is on conviction liable to life imprisonment.’
In this scheme of preventing and responding to the horrors of lockdown, the pivotal role of the media cannot be underplayed. And this is not just as the mirror to society but also as a watchdog, voice for the voiceless and bridge between service providers and target groups to name a few.