The mini lockdown ordered by the government in a bid to tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic that includes the directive to stay at home, and the decision by some employers to lay off workers and have others take pay cuts or even unpaid leave, is surely a recipe for stress and tension amid economic hardship.
With the closure of schools and colleges, having to suddenly have all the children, and sometimes even siblings, back home abruptly, especially for families struggling to put food on the table, is draining not just economically but also, most critically, mentally.
A study of past crises – humanitarian, disease outbreaks and conflicts such as war – indicates that women and girls become more susceptible to the ensuing chaos.
They are likely to be hit hardest by specific vulnerabilities that go beyond the risk of being infected.
Women and girls are most at risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – a serious protection issue – which occurs even at home, leaving them feeling unsafe and insecure.
The fact that women still bear the traditional responsibility of taking care of the home, the restrictions that have come with the Covid-19 pandemic – such as loss of jobs, especially for those in the informal and domestic sector, school closures, also economically given the huge numbers of female-headed homes today and other related pressures – the Covid-19 disruptions are bound to have a monumental impact on women and their sustenance.
However, it is the risk of an eruption of SGBV, including the much-overlooked emotional abuse, that we must also be vigilant about by all means, especially within and outside the family, including incest – which, besides being abusive, is also criminal.
Silence by families in the face of this violence is also not just criminal but a matter that we have to battle with as a society.
As we mull over a solution to the lack or shortage of the critical ‘weapon’ against Covid-19, such as water and soap, particularly in the informal settlements, we also have to take into account, with the same zeal, measures to alleviate SGBV and the attendant risks.
These should include protection measures such as provision for safe spaces where women and girls, survivors or those at risk of this criminality, can seek solace far from their abusers – family or otherwise.
The need for safe houses, rescue centres and shelters cannot be gainsaid at this time, when people are being directed to stay at home as efforts to fight against spread of the horrendous virus go into overdrive.
This also calls for vigilance not just by women and human rights advocates and organisations but all the right-thinking members of the society, leaders, the police, community and family members.
It is time to break the silence and all should take it as a responsibility to report to the authorities any cases of sexual abuse and gender-based violence such as rape, defilement, domestic and family violence, incest and all other forms of SGBV.
Bear in mind that it is in times like these, when people deal with challenges such as job losses in the light of huge family responsibilities, that some tend to direct the attendant stress at those close to them.
In most cases, women and girls become the target of such mishandled and misplaced stress because of their vulnerabilities.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which has been advocating gender-sensitive responses in the face of Covid-19, urges policymakers to include women’s perspectives in pandemic planning and decision making.
This given that SGBV survivors need access to protection and health services amid the measures to contain coronavirus, including quarantines.
The Ministry of Public Service and Gender, whose Cabinet secretary, Prof Margaret Kobia, has been outstanding in matters gender, should publish hotlines and helplines where survivors and Kenyans of goodwill can report SGBV against women and girls.
Rights advocates and other organisations should also be vigilant, reach out and be on hand to help deal with possible risks and escalation of SGBV at this time when all the attention and focus is on Covid-19.
Ms Rugene is a consulting [email protected] @nrugene