Celebrating Women’s day in a COVID-19 World

By Evelyn Birungi

This Monday, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women on International Women’s Day(IWD). Marked annually on March 8th, IWD is one of the most important days of the year to: celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity, fundraise for female-focused charities. This year, IWD is being celebrated under the theme “Women in leadership achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” celebrates the remarkable efforts by women to shape a more equitable future after COVID-19. Read More “Celebrating Women’s day in a COVID-19 World”

Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls Refugees in the time of COVID-19

By Helen Kezie-Nwoha

2020 marks the sixth global annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. This year has been particularly challenging for the entire world with the COVID-19 pandemic but much more for women and girls’ refugees, who are already living in very difficult circumstances with limited access to social services and livelihood options. COVID-19 and the measures put in place by governments to curb its spread has led to increased human rights violations and particularly painfully, to sexual violence against refugee women and girls’. Despite the March 23, 2020, global call for ceasefire by the UN Secretary-General, conflicts have continued in many countries exposing women and girls to displacements and increased risk of sexual violence. This is not to say that it is absent in so-called peaceful countries; in fact, sexual violence has increased globally due to COVID-19. This blog discusses sexual violence against refugees women and girls in the time of COVID-19.

Globally the extent of conflict-related sexual violence is not known as a result of underreporting associated with stigma and intimidation of survivors, lack of adequate response mechanisms for survivors and reporting barriers[1] particularly for refugee women and girls. The United Nations Secretary General’s report on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) indicates that both state and non-state actors are responsible for sexual violence, which has been used to displace communities[2]. We see examples across conflict-affected Africa. In South Sudan, allied militia raped women and girls as part of a campaign to drive opponents out of southern Unity State. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Twa and Luba militia used sexual violence as a means of repression, terror and control. In Burundi, armed actors gang-raped and sexually humiliated detainees perceived as political opponents. In Nigeria, sexual violence has been used as a tactic of terrorism as women and girls have been targeted for abduction and sexual abuse by extremist groups[3].

Women and girls forcibly displaced by conflict and seeking refuge from violence remain at risk. In refugee situations data on the true prevalence of sexual and gender based violence during COVID-19 is lacking. However, preliminary data obtained from the Women’s International Peace Centre-trained Women Peace Mediators provides the nature, causes and responses to sexual violence against women and girls in refugee contexts in West Nile, northern Uganda. The most prevalent cases include defilement, early and forced marriages, survival sex and domestic violence.

Defilement: in the month of April and May, Women Peace Mediators reported seven (7) defilement cases involving girls aged 14 to 17 years in Zones 1, 3 & 5 in Yumbe and Maaji refugee camps in Adjumani. Two of the perpetrators were arrested, one ran away and the other is negotiating to marry the victim. There has been no follow up with the cases as the police is more concerned with ensuring that the population adhere to COVID-19 lockdown rules. Some parents due to shame and stigma prefer to negotiate with the perpetrator to marry the victim and earn money from bridal dowry. In some cases, parents falsify the age of their daughters by increasing it to 18 years or above so she is forced to marry the perpetrator.

Forced marriages: Six (6) cases of young girls forced to marry during COVID-19 have been reported in Nyumanzi refugee resettlement. Many parents who cannot afford to take care of their families are forcing young girls to marry and limiting their opportunity to finish school. Another reported case of forced marriage is of a 17-year-old girl who was raped by a 23-year-old man, and has been forced to marry the perpetrator. This situation is made worse by limited access to health care services in the refugee settlements. The Women Peace Mediators were able to refer the survivor for emergency post-rape medical care and counselling. The social norms and practices impede access to justice for these young women rape survivors by pushing for marriages to the perpetrator

In April 2020 the World Food Programme announced reduction in food ration for over 1.4million refugees in Uganda, South Sudan DRC and Burundi due to COVID-19[4]. This has led to increased domestic violence among refugees in northern Uganda as food rations have been reduced from 12kg to 8kg which is barely enough for families. Due to restricted movement many cannot go out to work and earn additional money to provide for the family, the lack of enough food is leading to tensions within the household and domestic violence against women from men demanding for food or who sell off the ration received to supplement for other household needs. In Bidibidi settlement in Yumbe District, the Women Peace Mediators recorded thirty-six (36) domestic violence cases in April and forty-two (42) cases in May 2020.

Survival sex: Many young women have fallen prey to older men who are offering money for items such as sanitary pads, food and panties. This is because a lot of families cannot afford these basic items due to high poverty levels particularly among refugees who do not have access to paid work or diverse livelihood sources. In addition, with the lockdown and limited movement opportunities to earn a living are squashed even further. Young women who get pregnant often engage in unsafe abortions, as there is limited access to reproductive health services, thus exposing them to further reproductive health risks and in some cases, or death.

The main challenges from the forgoing are that COVID-19 is increasing poverty and vulnerabilities of refugee women and girls to sexual and gender based violence. Yet, little attention is paid to this horrendous impact of COVID-19. Most of the resources for COVID-19 are being used to ensure security, thus replicating responses in traditional conflict or crisis setting where attention is paid to securing the borders and amassing tools to enforce state security at the expense of human security.

As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict all stakeholders must ensure women and girls refugees are safe and live in dignity. To achieve this, it is important that humanitarian response ensure enough food is available for refugees. Interventions working to reduce and eliminate sexual violence need to be scaled up to ensure deterrence and end impunity, perpetrators must be apprehended and penalised to ensure justice for victims. Responses by all actors should take a holistic approach that addresses the socio economic needs of refugee women and girls . In addition, all COVID-19 committees at all levels should include refugees women and girls  to ensure their needs and concerns are taken into account in all decision-making and implementation of the response including post COVID-19 planning.


[1] UNSG 2018 Annual Report on Conflict Related Sexual Violence. https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/report/s-2019-280/Annual-report-2018.pdf

[2] Ibid

[3] UNSG 2018 Annual Report on Conflict Related Sexual Violence. Pg. 5

[4] Food rations to 1.4 million refugees cut in Uganda due to funding shortfall. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/14/food-rations-to-14-million-refugees-cut-in-uganda-due-to-funding-shortfall-coronavirus-world-food-programme

COVID19 Response Is Disrupting African Cultural and Social Norms

Helen Kezie-Nwoha[1] and Angeline Nkwenkam Nguedjeu[2]


Our culture in Africa shapes our identity. We proudly refer to ourselves as Africans. This sense of pride emanates from our very rich cultural and social norms. All over the world people have cultures that they cherish and inform their beliefs, norms and social practices.

Read More “COVID19 Response Is Disrupting African Cultural and Social Norms”

Women in Peace building

By Evelyn Birungi

“The work of educating the world to peace is the woman’s job, because men have a natural fear of being classed as cowards if they oppose war.” Jeanette Rankin once said.  Although women have the power and ability to just as actively contribute and fuel conflicts, more often than not, they are championing for peace.

This past decade we have heard more examples of this, for example; It was women who brought an end to the 14-year war in Liberia, organizing daily sit-ins, staging vigils, and taking to the streets until negotiators agreed to sign a deal. In Afghanistan,  the courageous People’s Peace Movement was first sparked by women in Helmand province. A picture of 22 year old Alaa Sallah in the middle of the Sudan revolution went viral and inspired many. “The future is female” “Lady Liberty of Sudan” is an example of some of the reactions that were filled on social media screens. Women have always been key players in the fight for peace although their efforts have gone unrecognized. In this article, I will attempt to explain peace building, UN 1325 and just how important it is to actively adopt it. Read More “Women in Peace building”

Tackling the Remarriage of Half-Widows in Kashmir

Due to the prolonged conflict in Kashmir, since 1989, thousands of civilians have been killed in Kashmir. While most of the killings have taken place at the hands of security forces from unprovoked shooting, fake encounters, in custody and other methods due to the result of actions by the non-state actors and militants. A conservative estimate of enforced disappearances puts it at 8000 while the state government acknowledges 4000 disappearance cases.

Many have been permanently physically disabled, some have been raped and some tortured leading them to become mentally ill. In fact, women have been the worst sufferers. They continue to suffer as mothers, spouses, widows, sisters and grandmothers. The worst affected however, are the half-widows/half wives.

Half widows suffer social, economic and emotional insecurity. Widowed women know that their husbands are dead, can take a decision about their future and are entitled to some compensation under State law.

Half-widows on the other hand are uncertain about the future and are only entitled to compensation on production of death certificates – which they never receive. This makes the half widows most vulnerable, as there are no legal or administrative remedies available to them.

The widows, orphans, half widows and half orphans face numerous challenges. These range from their limited rights to property; particularly land and houses owned by their husband’s families; to their right to compensation and right to re-marry.

Most half widows are Muslim and there is no consensus in Islamic law on their remarriage. All the major schools of thoughts, the Hanfia, the Maliki; Shaafi; Hambali and Jafria provide different guidance about remarriage. Thus while the Hanafi school says that a woman should wait for 90 years after her husband’s disappearance some scholars of Maliki school put the wait period as 4 years and some as 7 years. There is also an opinion that if the husband remains missing, without informing about his whereabouts even after proper investigation, the marriage is deemed dissolved.

Opinions also differ on the validity of a second marriage should the first husband return. Some are of the opinion that the second marriage is automatically nullified on arrival of the first husband. Others hold that the second marriage will remain valid if a Qazi nullifies the first marriage even when the first husband returns. As per a circular issued by Jammu and Kashmir government a few years back, a half widow has to wait for seven years after the disappearance of her husband to remarry.

However, a landmark judgment by a Kupwara court on December 31st, 1993 granted permission of remarriage to one Hamida whose husband Mohi-ud-din Bhat had disappeared just 4 years before.

Against this background, I decided to address this issue within the jurisprudence of Islam.

The difference in interpretation of Sharia law which binds every Muslim man and woman needed to be addressed in a rational manner and a consensus to be arrived at in the light of Quran and Hadith (sayings of Prophet) regarding the “wait period” in case of half widows willing to remarry.

I felt it was also important to sensitize the people about the socio-economic and emotional problems of widows and half-widows; to mobilize support and rehabilitate this sizeable population of Kashmir society.

I organised a congregation under the banner of Ehsaas (Conciliation Resources’ supported gender Peace building group in Indian Administered side of Kashmir) with an initiative to sensitize the community about the issues faced by the half widows and to find a consensus on the issue of re-marriage and property rights of the victims within the jurisprudence of Islam.

This was first such initiative by any group of civil society in Kashmir during the past 25 years of conflict.

Eight Ulema (religious scholars) from different schools of thought of Islam took part, along with members of civil society, representatives of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and a few half widows to discuss solutions to the critical issues faced by half widows.

Many brainstorming sessions were held with the Ulema, half widows, members APDP, civil society and women activists. Finally the Ulema reached a consensus to find a way for the half widows vis a vis their issues of re-marriage and the property.

They decided to pave way for half widows to re marry after four years of their husbands’ disappearance against many opposing rulings from different schools of thought. Wide coverage was given to this breakthrough in the State and national level papers. All sections of the society appreciated and lauded this effort.

Parveena Ahangar, Chair person of APDP, said, “These women (half-widows) have devoted their whole life in search of their husbands and in taking care of their children. I am not sure if all of them will remarry. But there has to be guidelines to address the issue of re-marriage and addressing property and inheritance issues.”

Ezabir Ali is an alumna of the 2013/14 Isis-WICCE International Exchange Programme Institute.

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