During the current outbreak of COVID-19, there is an increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV), including sexual exploitation and abuse. GBV is an act of violence committed against a person because of their gender. Women, girls and children are at greater risk of GBV. Under COVID-19 lockdowns, the risk of GBV is likely to increase due to the restriction of movement, lower household incomes, the added burden of family care duties on girls, school closures, and pandemic-related stress and tension and fear of infection.
People experiencing GBV may have difficulty reporting complaints of abuse due to restrictions of movement, fear of reporting perpetrators, lack of tools and knowledge and conditions may be worse for remote communities. Women and girls are likely to face challenges seeking help especially if they live with or close to their abusers, and shelters and safe spaces may be full, closed or not available in their area or be operating remotely instead.
Here is what you can do…
If someone you know is being abused…
- Do not try to force them to leave their home when they don’t feel ready.
- Listen empathetically to them and don't undermine, blame, nor criticize the reasons for which they may choose to stay with or return to an abusive person.
- Let them know that the abuse is not their fault and that you believe what they’re saying.
- Be clear that you are trying to help and not to judge. Let them know that you are there for them, to help them figure out the best way to get through this situation safely.
- Stay in communication with them. Try and avoid making the abusive person suspicious, to allow communication lines with them to stay open. Be creative: try to find safe communication solutions for you and them, e.g., joint calls with children to ‘play games’ online may remove any suspicion. Find out what services for GBV survivors are available in your area (e.g. shelters, hotlines, counseling services, women’s organizations) and are still functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and make this information available through your networks and social media. Only provide this information directly if you can do so discretely, without the abuser finding out.
- If someone you know needs urgent help for whatever reason, be prepared to call emergency health services, the police, a health centre, or a support hotline, Contact the Malawi Police Service using the following numbers: 997 or 990 for free.
Encourage women and girls at risk to prepare a safety plan. Safety plans can be used when violence escalates and the risk to their lives is greater. Safety plans can include information of who to call, how to leave the house, what to take with you, and ensure women have a code word or code sign to signal a neighbor, family member, trusted confidant at the local shop in case abuse intensifies or becomes life threatening.
If you are being abused…
If you are experiencing any form of violence or threat of harm, it may be helpful to reach out to trusted family members, friends or neighbours; to seek support from a hotline or, if safe, from an online service for survivors of GBV. Find out if local services (e.g. shelters, counselling services) are open and reach out to them if possible. Make a safety plan in case the GBV against you or your children escalates. This includes:
• Identifying a neighbour, friend, relative, colleague, or shelter to go to in case you need to leave the house with immediate effect for your own safety.
• Have a plan for how you will exit the house safely and how you will reach your place of shelter (e.g. transport).
• If possible, develop a code with a trusted neighbor so they can come to your aid in case of an emergency.