Like other pandemics and crises, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is more severely impacting people who face discrimination and inequality due to aspects of their identity including gender, race and socio-economic status. Women and sexual and gender minorities are particularly at risk, as stringent lockdown measures, economic pressures and a lack of access to vital support services increases their vulnerability.
We are working closely with our partner organisations to ensure we understand how COVID-19 is affecting women and other marginalised groups and adapting our activities to reduce their risks to increased violence and infection.
Our new series explores the gendered implications of COVID-19 in five different conflict-affected countries: Somalia, South Sudan, Myanmar, Nepal, and Yemen. Each piece has been developed with or by civil society and women-led organisations working in partnership with Saferworld.
With over 2,800 cases* of COVID-19 reported in Somalia, the country and its people have rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances amidst other ongoing insecurity. Saferworld spoke to Amin Abdi Mohamed of the Mogadishu-based Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC) about the impact of COVID-19 on women in Somalia and its implications on sexual and gender-based violence.
Amin Abdi Mohamed is the Head of the Gender-Based Violence and Child Protection Unit at SWDC. His team works to protect women and children affected by conflict and abuse, and provides assistance during emergencies as part of a larger effort by SWDC to promote gender equality, child protection and women’s empowerment across Somalia.
Saferworld has been working with SWDC since 2016 to strengthen community safety and security in three locations; Kismayo, Baidoa and Mogadishu. For this project, community action forums (CAFs) made up of volunteers in the community have conducted safety assessments that show gender-based violence (GBV) as a major concern in all three locations. Women of all backgrounds, including those from minority groups such as internally displaced persons (IDPs), report high levels of violence and limited access to justice.
Despite progress as a result of the work of Somali organisations, such as SWDC, who provide life-saving services to GBV survivors, and the CAFs who equip women with knowledge of their rights and skills to resolve conflict, the onset of COVID-19 is creating a setback.
On 15 April 2020, a curfew was put in place across Mogadishu that restricts movement outside the home from 8pm to 5am. As with other emergencies, curfew and lockdown measures usually affect the vulnerability of women and girls to increased violence, as home is often not a safe haven for many. Amin explains, “We noticed that reported incidents [of sexual and domestic violence] happen during curfew hours. We thought the curfew would provide women and girls with more safety, but that’s not the case. Just over 50% of [sexual violence] perpetrators either live in the same house as the survivor or are neighbours. COVID-19 restrictions are having a huge impact on women and children.
SWDC is continuously monitoring our [cases] database, analysing the impact that COVID-19 has had on GBV. For example, in Mogadishu, over 100 cases of sexual violence were documented between the end of January and mid-April 2020. We saw 13 cases documented in less than 72 hours. Nearly 65% of the all the cases we have worked on involve child survivors, most of which are girls. This could be as a result of the closure of schools due to COVID-19, meaning children are at home or on the streets playing. Rather than protecting them, the closures have put more children at risk.”
Domestic and intimate-partner violence has also increased. Amin tells us that over 600 cases have been documented by SWDC in the first quarter of 2020 alone, which has doubled compared to the last quarter of 2019. While it’s important to caveat these figures with the general under-reporting of GBV, especially the cases of domestic and intimate-partner violence, they do give an indication of how women and children are bearing the brunt of lockdown and quarantine measures.
Yet despite this increase, women and girls have limited places to go to if they want to access GBV services or seek justice. “Part of the protection work we conduct is to strengthen the systems that prevent and respond to abuse, increasing the capacity of those that respond to it, including law enforcement. But [with COVID-19] these activities have been suspended, while the need for protection of women and children increases. The closure of courts is creating a backlog of sexual violence cases and a worry that perpetrators of violence may never face justice.”
SWDC is running three 24 hour toll-free hotlines for survivors to report cases immediately and seek support. One hotline is dedicated specifically to child protection, and the other two are for supporting adult GBV survivors in Mogadishu and Baidoa respectively.
“When the operator receives a call, she or he documents the type of call and support needed and refers the case to the necessary support provider. For example, if it is legal aid our lawyers are there to be immediately connected to the client for legal counsel. If there is a health concern, the operator refers the call to a medical professional. We have also now added psycho-social support through the hotline.” Prior to COVID-19 restrictions SWDC provided extensive counselling support to adult and child victims of sexual violence and abuse at their one-stop centre in Mogadishu.
“Our hotline calls have almost tripled as we have shifted to remote case management and service provision. However, we have continued some of our existing face-to-face outreach work, with the observation of COVID-19 protocols and the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation. For example, in Mogadishu and Baidoa we still have clinics open that respond to rape cases and provide clinical support in person.”
SWDC is coordinating with the Somali national government to accelerate the protection of women and children. “We are working with the Ministry of Defence on the dissemination of messages through radio on protection against SGBV, especially during the pandemic. The government is running spot messages on five main radio stations, and uses our hotline number as their point of contact. This is significantly increasing the number of calls we receive,” explains Amin.
A wider context
While the pandemic continues to affect women of all status and backgrounds, Amin notes the particular burden on women IDPs that live in precarious conditions around the country. “The challenges facing women IDPs is significantly different because those in host communities have a support system and access to services. But for IDPs who have covered miles to flee from conflict or natural hazards and have to work hard to adapt to their new life, access to services is limited.”
Amin explains how women IDPs often face intimate partner violence as men who migrate from rural areas to urban areas feel their status threatened and seek to exercise authority with women, as they may feel it has been lost. COVID-19 restrictions are intensifying this violence. “We are working with women IDPs who rely on informal incomes working at market areas and cleaning, and now cannot work due to lockdown, to know their rights and learn about intimate partner violence, to start tackling this tension.”
“We also cannot forget that it is not only the challenge of COVID-19 that the country is facing. Somalia is facing almost three other emergencies, there is still armed conflict ongoing in different parts of the country. There is also a locust invasion in farming areas which has severely affected communities, as well as flooding which in the last few weeks has increased the number of people fleeing from affected areas. All these are now huge challenges that this country is facing, and women and children are bearing the brunt of the consequences of these emergencies.”
Looking ahead to the future, Amin and his team will continue to provide vital support to women and children in Somalia. SWDC have mobilised volunteer groups such as community-based child protection committees, and Saferworld-supported CAFs who act as focal points in their area, reporting concerns to SWDC and raising awareness of COVID-19. Despite an initial reluctance from the community to accept COVID-19 restrictions due to a lack of understanding about the virus, the committees have worked hard to shift perceptions and protect their communities, in particular women and children.
Amin concludes, “I want to add my voice to that of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that during COVID-19, we must make sure that women are at the centre of virus prevention and the response. And, even though right now the world is very busy with the immediate response, it’s very important that we put focus on the socio-economic impact that COVID-19 will have in the long run. For example, nearly 60% of small and medium enterprises [of which most have been affected due to COVID-19] in Somalia are run by women. This tells us something about the economic implications. That’s where I think women and children will also be impacted even more than compared to during the crisis.”
Main image Illustration: Adriana Bellet/Saferworld