COVID-19 jeopardises progress in protecting women and girls from violence and harmful practices

Justine Coulson. Roberta Clarke. Mohamed M. Fall: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 June 2020:

The passing of laws to end child marriage resulted in blocking thousands of child marriages and enabling second chance education for girls. However, these gains made over the years are in jeopardy in the age of COVID-19.

In Malawi because of cases brought to court, child marriages were annulled, and girls had the opportunity to return to school. Fewer adolescents experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) compared with older generations. In Ethiopia, for instance, 47 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 years have undergone FGM compared to 75 per cent of women aged 35 to 49 years.

The same trend has been observed for child marriage, with a decline from 58 per cent of women aged 25 to 49 years compared to 40 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 years.

These changes were supported by United Nations (UN) global and regional joint programmes, including the UN and European Union Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls and harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM.

However, health crisis such as the Ebola and now the COVID-19 crisis undermine strategies to end sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) and other harmful practices and poses a serious threat to the significant progress made over the past decade. Livelihoods are lost, social support networks are disrupted, and we are witnessing a reduction of access to reproductive health information and services.  This will inevitably result in an increase in unintended pregnancies, child marriage, school dropouts and sometimes, maternal mortality.

In East and Southern Africa, there are reports of increases in the incidents of sexual and gender-based violence including child marriage and FGM. Countries in the region, already rated as the poorest and most unequal in the world, are further grappling with the effects of the pandemic with communities sinking further into poverty. In these financially-fragile homes, increases in child labour and sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls are likely unless prevented.

Women and girls trapped in their homes with their abusers are isolated from the services and resources. Additionally, shrinking peer support networks increase a girl’s social isolation and vulnerability. Projections estimate that 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence will occur globally if the lockdown continues for at least six months.

Among the most vulnerable are adolescent girls aged 10 to 19 years with their limited negotiation skills within the family.  Many are likely to fall victim to child marriage; a practice to reduce the family’s economic burden and to increase income through dowry and bride price.

The lockdowns have temporarily shut down schools and other safe spaces for girls, and blocked access to mentorship programmes. Widespread closure of schools has interrupted the education of more than 1 billion children globally, exposing girls to a greater risk of GBV, child marriage, FGM, unintended pregnancies, and HIV infection.

Even prior to the pandemic, adolescent girls were already left behind. With today’s crisis, pre-existing gender inequalities exacerbate their vulnerability. Girls need to return to school to complete their education and create for themselves an empowered future. Post-COVID-19, families may need a financial push, and countries need to make the right investments in young people.

The education of girls, second chance education for survivors of GBV, Child Marriage, and the demographic dividend should be the priority of the governments in the rebuilding efforts.

Failing to pay particular attention to the specific needs of women and girls in times of crisis will undermine their basic rights. It is imperative that public policy efforts and programmes for the elimination of child marriage and FGM are implemented during the pandemic and beyond. This means continued investment on resources that commensurate to the needs of the most left behind girls—for prevention, for education, and for lifesaving SRHR and GBV services and protection.

UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women remain strongly committed to work with governments and all stakeholders to build societies where women and girls are free of violence and all form of discrimination by 2030. When women and girls can have access to the right information and support and when the governments prioritize their access to services and the justice system, the communities will prosper.

About the authors

Justine Coulson is the Acting Regional Director for UNFPA East and Southern Africa; Roberta Clarke, is a Senior Advisor and is the Acting Regional Director of UN Women, Eastern and Southern Africa, while Mohamed M Fall @MohamedFall is the Regional Director for UNICEF Eastern & Southern Africa.


  1. The treatment of women and girls, as second class citizens in the African continent is one of the most basic of human rights denied to half of the continent’s population. In every on going conflict in the continent, women, and girls are in the receiving end of men’s misogyny . They suffer more in every imaginable scenario when I think The DRC, Darfur, South Sudan, Northern Nigeria and some countries in the West African region. There are other non active conflict zone countries like, I am ashamed to say, Sierra Leone and South Africa, two of the highest cases of rape countries, reported against women, and girls in the continent.

    Rape is used as weapons of war, to demean societies and use as a collective punishment for whole communities. Recently, the government declared a state of emergency on rape in Sierra Leone. I think they should even go further to educate our young men how to respect our fellow women citizens. Apart from the class room, government should work with NGOs to organise road shows to educate both men and women, about the psychological impact these heinous crimes have in societies. There should be stiffer penalties for perpetrators. Build community safe houses for victims of rape. Because half the time when women report rape, they are rejected by their own very families that are meant to protect them in their hour of need.

    Some do not even bother to go the police because it is their word against the rapist. Establish a special police unit devoted to rape cases. Also a specialist police help line is needed. Confront the old age tradition of early marriage. Abolish FGM, which creates a lot of complication for women in later life. In places like Malawi, even though there are laws against early marriage, girls as young as ten are still being married off to men that can pass as their grandfathers. Create micro economic systems where women can be financially independent from their abusive husbands. Educate more girls, because that is the only route out of poverty and being able to break free from our Taliban style male dominated societies. If you want to see black Africa develops this is the starting place. Give African women the right to forge their own destiny by educating and empowering them.

  2. The same old rhetoric continues, and nothing is ever changing – I am just plainly sick and tired of being sick and tired of hearing dark, gloomy, depressing news about this decadent,corrupt,unprincipled African continent,we call our place of birth. Since that unfixable mess we call our independence we have been living in abject poverty, and still languishing stupidly in it, totally indifferent,without any hope for some form of life-changing economic relief anywhere in sight. Ugh!Today we may loudly applaud some form of progress,and briefly like the blinking of an eye,tomorrow it is quietly gone.

    Its time for our people to heed solid,prudent advice,and lay aside tribalism,thefts,and corruption,and direct their efforts instead to choosing their leaders wisely – its time for these inglorious perverts that allow the rape of women and children to pack up,and go. Whats wrong with cursed continent? Why is it that we are always on the news for the wrong reasons?Africans should find innovative ways to protect women and girls from violence, and sexual abuse; we cannot be following sheepishly in the footsteps of Western nations – our cultures, lifestyles, and mindsets are not the same.

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