The whole world is going through extraordinary times due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ensuing public health crisis has ravaged global economies and brought with it social, economic, health and psychological effects of unprecedented proportions. The impact has been felt in every socio-ecological sphere of life.
There is evidence showing that COVID-19 is exacerbating gender inequalities and violations of women’s and children’s rights the world over. This is due to restrictions in movement and social and physical distancing which have led to isolation where domestic violence thrives. The socio-economic costs have been equally devastating. Loss of jobs and family incomes has increased the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls, the population segment that culturally takes up the additional responsibility of caring for the sick, children and the elderly. The closure of schools has further increased girls’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation, defilement, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), teenage pregnancies and child marriages.
In Kenya, the total number of Sexual Gender Based Violence cases reported through the National GBV toll-free helpline 1195, for the period January to December 2019 was 1,411. Between January and July, 2020 3,217 cases were recorded. This reflects a sharp increase from the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 when it increased by 33.7% and 50% by June 2020.The restrictive dusk to dawn curfew increased the vulnerability of women and girls owing to confinement with their abusers.
Following the increase of SGBV cases, the government has proactively moved to mitigate and de-escalate the vice. His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the National Crime Research Centre to carry out a focused study on Gender Based Violence and prepare an advisory for security agencies on action that can be taken in the prosecution of perpetrators. Kenya is also implementing a robust multi-agency acceleration plan to end Female Genital Mutilation in compliance with the Presidential Directive of ending the practice by 2022. At the regional level Kenya, has initiated a programme to end cross-border FGM in partnership with neighbouring Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia. The five countries have out-lawed and signed a landmark Regional Declaration to end FGM in the region.
Cognisant of the fact that the fight against Sexual Gender Based Violence cannot be won by a single agency, the government has created partnerships to synergize efforts. A multi-agency approach consisting of county governments, development partners and other non-state actors, under the auspices of the National and County Gender Sector Working Groups, has enhanced the effectiveness in implementing programmes on SGBV, Women Peace and Security and Female Genital Mutilation.
Through the National GBV toll-free helpline 1195, the Government is providing immediate assistance to survivors of SGBV through tele-counselling and referrals for medical and legal services. The helpline is also key in collecting and collating data on the number of cases reported to help inform policy and programming. Effectiveness of the program has inspired other government run helpines including National police helpline – 0800730999 and Child helpline -116.
Public education and awareness creation is another mitigation strategy that the government has employed. Using national and regional media, National Government Administration Officers (NGAO) structure, and other stakeholders, the government has managed to enjoin men and boys as allies, advocates, role models, and change agents championing advocacy efforts against all forms of GBV.
While prevention remains the preferred maxim in this effort, some cases, unfortunately, are discovered too late and evacuation into safe spaces is required. Service providers’ have continually updated their directory and mapping of safe spaces and shelters to guide survivors and communities to support centres. Currently there are 36 shelters in 16 counties. The government has developed Gender Based Violence Recovery Centres (GBVRCs) guidelines for the establishment of the centres in all Level 5 hospitals across the country.
The government is also awake to the need for addressing the root causes of the vice in our society. While culture may account for some of the cases, poverty remains a key driving factor in the prevalence of SGBV and FGM. The Government economic stimulus programmes, particularly during the COVID-19 period is meant to cushion vulnerable groups which have lost their livelihoods. The President directed an appropriation of an additional Kshs. 10 billion as cash transfer to the elderly, orphans and other vulnerable individuals and households, to cushion them against negative economic effects of the pandemic. Government and other partners have provided Dignity kits with basic hygiene items to women, girls and boys.
The government has also moved to cushion the marginalized from the devastating effects of COVID-19 by scaling up affirmative action funds lending to women, youth and persons with disability. The upscaling has been phenomenal during the period with increased fund disbursements by Women Enterprise Fund (Kshs.1,065,100,000), Uwezo Fund (Kshs.319,465,953), Youth Enterprise Development Fund (Kshs.232,000,000) and National Government Affirmative Action Fund (Kshs.27,068,498).
With the welcome decline in COVID-19 infections, the country can now look forward to a post pandemic recovery period. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that all preventive, responsive and recovery measures being implemented through a rapid gender assessment will generate real time data to inform policy and programming during and after the pandemic and into the post-recovery period.
By Prof Margaret Kobia, Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Public Service and Gender