OPINION: Women facing domestic violence during COVID-19 need access to safety now more than ever

By Christine Ogutu and Wangu Kanja

“My husband beat me up and threw me out into the streets in the wee hours of the night with my two children,” Rehema* a survivor of domestic violence tells us when we meet her at her home in Nairobi’s Kawangware slums.

She says as soon as the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Kenya, her estranged husband wanted nothing to do with her.

“For the last seven years I have been married to him, there has never been peace in our home. Occasionally, we would fight even on the slightest provocation,” she says.

Sadly Rehema* is not the only one facing domestic violence: her experience mirrors that of many women and girls who are increasingly being trapped with their abusers at home.

With the raging cases of COVID-19 pushing households into economic slumps, women and girls “locked” with their abusers are also finding it difficult to seek safety away from violence marred homes- cutting them off from their supportive networks and resources that could help them.

The Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and the Wangu Kanja Foundation (WKF) who have been among the first responders to incidences of gender based violence (GBV) have reported rise in the number of women and girls making frantic calls to report abuse and seek refuge in shelters away from their abusers.

A similar trend of exacerbated levels of violence has also been reported by the National GBV helpline 1195 with up-to 55 percent increase in the number of calls made by survivors reporting abuse and seeking referral to support services.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 45 percent of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 reported to have experienced physical violence and 14 percent sexual violence according to the 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.

These statistics tell the tale of the everyday lived realities of women and girls who are forced to contend with the deeply rooted cultural norms, attitudes and practices that erodes their dignity and denies them the freedom to live free from violence and opportunities to advance their livelihoods as equal members of society.

Evidently, lockdowns and movement restrictions have even made it harder for women and girls to report abuse and seek help along the GBV referral pathways; countless survivors continue to lack access to the much needed essential services for their safety, protection and recovery such as the police sector response, shelters and psychosocial support.

This is despite the fact that the government has publicly acknowledged the spike in GBV.

However, there is nothing to write home about; the pain and suffering of survivors is real and if unattended, has potential to regress survival, growth and development of able bodied women and girls.

Moreover, GBV prevention, response and management continue to be underfunded and uncoordinated more so during the pandemic.

Worst still, in some health facilities GBV services are being withdrawn or missing due to lack of resources because the majority of services in these facilities are donor funded.

We have also seen instances where hospital staffs have been redistributed to other areas to deal with COVID-19.

With that said, the COVID-19 pandemic is however gifting us the opportunity to take decisive actions, make it right and address the scourge of violence against women and girls in Kenya.

Right from the household levels, to the communities and institutions we must address the power imbalances that normalize inequalities and magnify social ills, especially during crises like COVID-19.

We can all agree that the pervasive nature of gender based violence continues to subdue the gains made in creating equitable spaces for all hence, targeted safety nets are central to mitigating the impacts of the shadow pandemic.

Women Rights Organizations like CREAW and WKF have had to adapt their community interventions to better support survivors and address the needs of diverse groups of women and girls.

In the ‘new normal’ necessitated by curfews and social distancing measures, most of the organizations’ (CREAW and WKF) GBV service provision, like facilitating referrals to health facilities, offering counseling and safety planning for survivors, have transitioned to phone and virtual connections.

In particular, CREAW has established a toll free GBV helpline 0800-720-186 to provide referrals, tele-counselling and legal services to women and girls facing violence.

WKF operates a real-time mobile application where survivors can also report their abusers, document their ordeals, seek information and get online referrals to service providers within their localities.

In a joint initiative funded by the European Union, CREAW and WKF are also part of the consortium partners–Oxfam in Kenya, Kenya Red Cross, Impact, Concern Worldwide–currently supporting vulnerable households through cash disbursements aimed at cushioning households from plunging deeper into poverty in the wake of economic recession.

It is critical to note that the relief fund has especially targeted survivors of GBV to not only improve their purchasing and decision making power but also to help them build resilience as they re-organizes their lives beyond the pandemic.

We know for a fact that the pandemic has greatly impacted the financial earnings of households due to job losses and reduced economic activities for women who work in the informal sector.

The value of cash transfers to such vulnerable households amid the pandemic, especially survivors of GBV, cannot be overstated. It is literally a lifeline!

Evidence from past emergencies have shown that cash transfers are a sure way helping households access food, healthcare, shelter and achieve resilient livelihoods.

What more can be done?

Beyond the aforementioned interventions from non-state actors, much action is needed from government UN agencies, Business Community, Civil Society actors and the community as a whole to build stronger social protection structures to safeguard the safety, dignity and rights of women and girls more so during COVID-19.

For starters, given the dire challenges that women and girls are facing during the pandemic, the county and national level governments must take bold steps to ensure that women and girls have access to safe houses that offer survivors of GBV protection from their abusers.

To date, only Makueni County has been able to establish a fully-fledged State-run shelter, it is only practical that the other counties also replicate the same.

There is also an urgent need for the government to offer unconditional cash transfers to vulnerable households to ease economic stress and reduce the vulnerability of women and girls to violence.

Additionally, the aggravated nature of GBV also calls for perpetrator accountability hence the need for special crimes police units to urgently investigate and expedite on GBV matters.

Christine Ogutu is a Communication Specialist at the Center for Rights Education and Awareness and Wangu Kanja is the Executive Director of the Wangu Kanja Foundation

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Christine Ogutu and Wangu Kanja and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.