COVID-19 fuels surge in sexual violence, child marriage

Fresh out of university, Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi was living in the southern Nigerian state of Rivers when she was sexually assaulted.

A housemate comforted her and urged her to report the attack.

“So, I went to the police station and it was a terrible experience,” Osowobi recalled.

But, encouraged by her mother, she began blogging about the lack of support services in Nigeria.

Other survivors echoed her concerns, inspiring Osowobi to launch Stand to End Rape (STER).

Since 2014, the Lagos-based nonprofit has worked to provide legal, medical and mental health support to survivors, encourage prosecution of their assailants, and change negative cultural attitudes that diminish women and girls.

The goal, says Osowobi, now 30, is to “actually reduce this spate of sexual violence.” Osowobi says she has seen progress.

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi. PHOTO | COURTESY
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi. PHOTO | COURTESY

Yet she and other activists acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic is heightening the scourge of sexual and other violence against women and girls around the globe – casting a shadow over the United Nations’ annual observance Sunday of the International Day of the Girl Child.

As the U.N. website for the observance notes, “One in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence.”

Emerging data shows that since the outbreak of COVID-19, violence against women and girls (VAWG), and particularly domestic violence, has intensified.”

The theme of this year’s observance is “My Voice, Our Equal Future,” highlighting adolescent girls’ progress and potential.

A new, related UNESCO report examines the role of education in advancing gender equality. But COVID-related lockdowns have kept youngsters out of school and, in some cases, confined them in close quarters with sexual predators.

The pandemic also has increased child marriages as families try to place daughters in more economically stable households, ensure a girl’s virginity for a groom or attempt to ease their own financial burdens. Few of the girls resume schooling.

A groundswell of frustration and anger is driving demonstrations, along with new efforts to combat the violence that U.N. Women has described as a “shadow pandemic.”

In Sierra Leone, a special court opened in July in the capital city of Freetown, with 20 justices assigned to ensure that cases of rape and other sexual violence “are looked into and addressed expeditiously without sacrificing the core tenets of justice,” said a spokesman for President Julius Maada Bio.

In Kenya, out-of-session schools were at least temporarily converted into safe houses for women and girls to escape sexual abuse, supplementing privately run shelters, according to the Nairobi-based African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET).

In Nigeria, where the number of reported rapes tripled during COVID-related lockdowns, protests by women’s rights activists led the nation’s 36 governors to declare a state of emergency in June.

Nigeria’s minister of women affairs and social development, Pauline K. Tallen, told VOA her office is working closely with other government ministries and agencies to curb sexual violence. She has urged states to set up sex offender registries, as the federal government did in November, “to shame rapists.”

“We follow up to ensure that the perpetrators are well punished,” she said.

As for sexual assault survivors, Tallen said, “we give them the social support,” urging governors to ensure that they can access medical care, counseling and a safe place to stay. “A lot is being done.”

In September, the governor of Nigeria’s northern Kano state approved a controversial change in the penal code, permitting surgical castration of any man convicted of raping a child under age 14.

Any woman similarly convicted could have her fallopian tubes removed. Both also would face the death penalty. If the victim is 14 or older, the convicted rapist could spend life in prison.

While rights groups have protested the toughened penalty as inhumane and unconstitutional, Kaduna’s commissioner for women’s affairs and social development, Hafsat Baba, told VOA it would “actually serve as a deterrent.”

Sex assaults undercounted

Most sexual assaults go unreported, because stigma remains a huge deterrent for survivors to come forward, experts say.

Though countries “across Africa” have legal provisions for reporting cases of gender-based violence, “there are a lot of gatekeepers” in a family or community who want to tamp down such information, said Memory Kachambwa, executive director for FEMNET. “Some communities will still want to … protect their perpetrators.”

FEMNET encourages law enforcement to make it easier to report sensitive crimes.

“Some of the police stations are not very friendly,” Kachambwa said. Unless they have a safe space with trained officers, “it also becomes a barrier.”

As a pan-African feminist advocacy network, FEMNET also lobbies for better coordination of policies and laws. Kachambwa points to early marriage, which her organization, like the U.N., sees as harmful.

The minimum age for legal consent “differs across Africa,” mostly from 16 to 18, she noted. “So, where you find those gaps within the legislature, it means that a girl who is 16 can be married. … We define that not just as child marriage, but as abuse.”

Child marriage rates are surging amid the pandemic, Save the Children reported last week, with as many as 12.5 million girls likely to be forced into wedlock this year by the economic impact.

The surge frustrates but does not surprise Lyric Thompson and Aria Grabowski, co-chairs of Girls Not Brides USA, part of the global coalition trying to halt child marriage, and policy experts for the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women.

During humanitarian crises, “time and again, we see other things getting prioritized” – shelter, food, “whatever,” Thompson said. “And then the planning for [countering] specifically gendered forms of violence, including child marriage, falls by the wayside.”

“So much of the health response is focused on infection prevention and control,” said Grabowski, who recommended dedicating funding and programming early on to combat child marriage and gender-based violence.

In Nigeria, STER trains health workers “on sexual violence response: how to address survivors, how to document cases,” Osowobi said. Other STER personnel assist with legal work for survivors.

STER also focuses on preventing sexual violence.

“So, we engage a lot of boys and men,” sharing detailed information about “how their actions and inactions contribute to violence, how to promote positive masculinity, how to understand the precepts of human rights and consent. Just helping them know better and do better,” said Osowobi.

She said she draws strength and inspiration from working with other survivors, seeing them move “from a place of dejection to a place of hope. … We just have to keep moving forward.”

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