Wednesday, July 6, 2022

How gender based violence became Botswana’s parallel pandemic

As Botswana lunched rolling lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, for thousands of Batswana women, the cure was worse than the disease. Records from Botswana police suggest that during lockdowns, gender-based violence in Botswana spread almost as fast as the feared virus if not faster.

Botswana Police recorded 2,789 cases of rape between January and November 2020 when the country was in the grip of lockdowns, compared with 2,265 during all of 2019, said police spokesman Dipheko Motube. And the figures do not include other forms of gender based violence.

Activists think the true lockdown figures are likely far higher.

Senior counsellor at Olorato Counselling Centre, Albert Gaopelo says, “Harmful gender stereotypes embedded in social and cultural norms, which suggest that women must always submit to men or that a man who beats his wife does so because he loves her, have fuelled the rise in violence against women and girls. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an escalation in gender-based violence against women and girls in the country. It has also magnified existing structural problems such as poverty, inequality, crime, high unemployment. Across the country, women who suffered gender-based violence struggled to report abuse because both women and organizations working to provide protection and support to women were not seen as an “essential service”, and so faced severe restrictions of movement, resulting in them abandoning filing cases.”

The staggering increase in gender based violence was a sign of the times. Violence against women intensified during the pandemic — so did sexual harassment inside as well as outside of homes. Nearly 70% of women in Botswana have experienced physical or sexual abuse – more than double the global average, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), and police statistics revealed a spike in cases during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “Although the country’s experience with GBV is not unique, the extent and prevalence of the issue, compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has triggered a ‘secondary pandemic’ in the country. Unlike Covid-19 however, GBV is spread through social and political conditions that undermine the ability of women and girls to escape from abuse. Culturally, when women report experiences of sexual harassment, the first questions are: Where was she? At what time? What was she wearing? Was she alone? All of this puts a responsibility on the individual woman for her safety, when really, these are broader social issues that need to change.”

Widespread stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of COVID-19 meant a lot of women were locked in with their abusers, creating dangerous conditions for violence against women often with tragic consequences. In many households, coronavirus created a ‘perfect storm’ of social and personal anxiety, stress, economic pressure, social isolation, including with abusive family members or partners, and rising alcohol and substance use, resulting in increases in domestic abuse. The coronavirus pandemic made women feel more vulnerable to abuse, sexual harassment and violence, which is in turn harming their mental health and emotional well-being, The Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated isolation and social distancing, enabled a second, shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls, where they often found themselves in lockdown with their abusers. Throughout the pandemic, reduced social interaction and the removal of support mechanisms have taken a toll on mental health and escalated economic insecurity and social isolation for men and women, boys and girls. These are all risk factors for intimate partner/domestic violence.

The pandemic has painfully exposed the existing (health) inequalities and has further increased them, disproportionately impacting women and girls, particularly those who are already affected by disadvantaged conditions formed by the (social) determinants of health, including, low income, age, disability, and health status. The COVID-19 pandemic worsens the situation in multiple ways. Firstly, the incidence of gender-based violence has dramatically increased, mainly because the ‘stay at home’ measures and of the increased insecurity and stress the pandemic has inflicted on the society.

Secondly, the social and health care professionals who provide life-saving support to women who experience violence, such as the clinical management of rape and psycho-social support, have significantly been reduced because of the overburdening and focus on handling COVID-19 cases. This change in focus and resource allocation also undermines the efforts to prevent gender-based violence from happening. Violence has generally been found to increase in the face of pandemics. During the COVID-19 lockdowns imposed, some homes across the region became enclaves of cruelty, rape and violence for women and girls trapped with abusive family members and nowhere to report or escape the danger. Lockdown measures meant that women could not escape abusive partners or leave their homes to seek protection.

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