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.

[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.

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