Impact of COVID-19 on women in South Sudan
“Two more young women gang-raped near Jebel Kujur, Juba,” a newspaper headline on 1st June 2020 announces. It conveys the growing rate of sexual violence and goes on to tell the story of six armed men invading their houses at a time when women and girls are compelled to “Stay at Home, Stay Safe”.
Publisert: 18.11.2020 Redigert: 18.11.2020
This comes on the heels of similar cases of rapes at home or in residential areas in May. A 58-year-old woman raped and killed in Jonderu, an 8-year-old girl gang-raped in Gudele, and the mother of 2 whose children witnessed the rape.
Much like this headline dictates, COVID-19 has brought more of the same for many women in South Sudan, a country recovering from years of armed conflict and making slow progress in ending impunity for sexual and gender-based violence. The threat of, and measures to prevent or respond to COVID-19, have worsened the already vulnerable position of many, while limiting their ability to respond to the negative impact or build their resilience to current shocks.
On 5th April, South Sudan reported its first case, and the number has since grown to 992 cases as of 2nd June 2020, with ten deaths. To lead the response, the government put in place a High-Level Task Force on COVID-19 to take precautionary measures in combating the spread. It is headed by the President and the First Vice President, with participation of a wide range of Ministers, working with development partners and civil society organizations. The measures included social distancing, frequent hand washing, closure of schools, shops and businesses selling non-food items, staying at home and later recommended working in shifts for the formally employed. The measures initially led to panic about the pandemic, among a population already dealing with war trauma. Some negative effects were observed in relation to household food security and livelihoods, health, education, pastoral, cultural and entertainment activities.
For women who continued to work in the markets to earn a living, the restriction on movement and the curfew exposed them to assault by security forces on their way home after curfew. While the culture of silence around domestic violence and weak access to justice for women affects official reporting, it has been noted that there is an increase in domestic violence as more men now stay at home. Women face even more difficulty reporting violence by an abuser they will have to return home to, while women’s groups are unable to move around and provide their usual support to survivors. The forced closure of schools and universities increases the risk for girls to drop out from schools due to pregnancy or early and forced marriage, also heightening their risk for other forms of gender-based violence. Many families in a context with high child marriage rates at 52% and disrupted livelihoods due to COVID-19, now face the prospect of marrying off their daughters due to their inability to provide basic needs such as food, while others may do it to earn money for family upkeep.
It is clear that measures to contain or respond to the spread of COVID-19 should consider the heightened risk and incidences of sexual and gender-based violence in addition to incorporating concrete responses. Women’s leadership along with their practical and strategic needs should be included in decision-making processes of the COVID-19 high-level taskforce, which should also think through efforts to undo pushback on gains in closing the gender gap in all aspects of development in South Sudan.