Authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa must ensure their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic include specific protections for the rights of women and girls, Amnesty International, Women’s Link Worldwide and the International Planned Parenthood Federation Africa Region (IPPFAR) said in a report published today.
The document provides a roadmap for governments and regional organisations for taking the necessary measures to protect the rights of women and girls, who are often disproportionately affected in crisis situations. It highlights states’ obligations to guarantee the right to live free from discrimination and violence and calls on governments to ensure access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, commodities and information during the pandemic.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and girls. Their health and wellbeing is not only negatively impacted by the disruption of essential sexual and reproductive services such as contraceptives counselling, maternal and newborn health, gender-based violence (GBV), and testing and treatment for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, but also their livelihoods and even their lives are threatened when sexually based crimes go invisible and stay unpunished,” says Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry, the IPPF Africa Regional Director.
“This is why the African Union, regional economic commissions, governments and women rights defenders must redouble their efforts in ensuring that the sexual reproductive health and rights of women and girls are protected and upheld and violations of these rights are documented dealt with by justice systems.”
The organisations are calling for governments to take urgent action to protect the rights of women and girls, highlighting the specific gender risks which the COVID-19 pandemic poses.
Example highlighted in the report includes the right to live free of violence and any form of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment.
“During times of crisis and turmoil such as the one we are living in, women and girls face an increased risk of suffering violations of their rights. This is especially true for women already living in marginalized situations. For this reason, it is urgent that we work to ensure that their rights are respected and guaranteed,” said Viviana Waisman, President & CEO of Women’s Link Worldwide.
“These guidelines are a roadmap to allow us to carry out this monitoring and advocacy work and demand that governments comply with their obligations and maintain their commitment to the rights and lives of women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
According to the report, the implementation of measures such as curfews, lockdowns or travel restrictions may lead to police brutality and violence which ultimately poses a risk for women and girls to being subjected to sexual violence. There are also concerns of increase in teenage pregnancies, as previously observed in Sierra Leone following the lockdown imposed to halt the spread of the Ebola epidemic. Governments should put safeguards in place to ensure women and girls are protected from sexual violence and have access to sexual and reproductive health services and commodities.
The organisations also call for better protections for refugee and migrant women. Africa hosts more than 25.2 million refugees and internally displaced people and houses four of the world’s six largest refugee campsin Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Refugee camps in the region usually provide inadequate and overcrowded living arrangements that present a severe health risk to inhabitants.
“As COVID-19 spreads across the region women and girls have reportedly already faced an increase in domestic violence. Restrictions on movement, social isolation and lockdowns can make it even harder for women to access essential services like sexual and reproductive healthcare and protection from domestic violence,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International West and Central Africa regional director.
“We call on governments in the region to act urgently to prevent gender gaps increasing. Any measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic must respect and protect women’s rights, including the right to live free of violence and torture and other ill-treatment, and the right to access justice.”