The Covid-19 pandemic has created room for rape and all forms of violence against women and girls; they remain trapped in abusive unions and the pandemic restrictions have restricted them from seeking help, or escaping.
In a recent report; Southern Africa: Treated like furniture, Amnesty International decries how the pandemic is worsening gender-based violence (GBV) – the silent pandemic as they call it.
The report points to pains owing to measures such as states of emergency/disaster and lockdown measures of varying degrees.
“These restrictive measures precipitated shocking rises in gender-based violence as they transformed homes into iron cages of male-driven abuse against women and girls,” it adds.
The above holds true for Malawi and, amid the pandemic, hope has literally eluded many women and girls.
“We are seeing increased cases of fathers leaving their families because they were laid off and can’t afford life anymore,” says Jane Mkangala, Lumbadzi Police Station Victim Support Unit (VSU) coordinator.
“It is pathetic,” chips in Maness Banda, a Lilongwe social welfare officer who adds that women are bearing the Covid-19 burden, more.
In Lilongwe, this situation seems wide spread, unfortunately, at a time when most institutions where women reported such issues, have either closed shop or scaled down on receiving walk-in clients.
An example is Gender and Justice Unit (GJU) that normally runs a walk-in legal and trauma clinic that has since ground to zero due to restrictions on movements.
However, GJU director Sarai Chisala Tempelhoff realises that, “as much as there has been a reduction in the operations of the legal clinic, GBV cases are rampant in the localities.”
In response, the GJU has had to innovate to serve the situation.
“We had to decide to take our GBV Response clinics to the people at a scaled down rate, providing mobile legal clinics in selected communities,” says GJU programmes manager, Tiwonge Nyemba.
“Ultimately, for us to bring about lasting change, there is a need for concerted, sustainable and innovative approaches to translate the latter of the law into a reality where women and girls live free from the normalized violence,” suggests Tempelhoff.
Through these clinics, GJU paralegals meet women from peri-urban settings and provide legal assistance and document the gender related stories. The aim is to gauge the situation and come up with proper support including access to justice and legal services.
Recently, at least 40 women in Chigwirizano, Chitipi, Mtandire and Lumbadzi shared their challenges with GJU paralegals and hope is that sooner rather than later, they should have their cases resolved.
“These clinics have brought hope and opportunity to enhance justice for abused women,” says Banda, the social worker.
A Lingadzi Police VSU coordinator Judith Kalulu tells of untold stories of children left to fend for themselves because dumped mothers can no longer manage.
“We have cases where we literary have to feed children for months,” she narrates.
Of the 40 women GJU met recently, 18 faced child maintenance challenges, three divorce, four varied marriage disputes and seven domestic violence matters. There were also property grabbing, rape and land related matters.
Chrissy (not real name), 26, is among them. She was married in 2011 but the nuptials ended in 2016; left with a son, now 8.
“I want help to pin my ex-husband to be taking care of his son. I am very upbeat of GJU helping me find justice,” she says.
Chrissy, from Group Village Head Mwanza, and 34 others, are benefiting from GJU support in Traditional Authourity (T/A) Malili’s area, alone.
“We have seen stories of women being battered slow down with the support. Sometimes village leaders were ignoring GBV related cases reported to them or sided with men,” she recalls.
GJU works with a number of stakeholders including the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), the Police and social welfare office in order to identify GBV victims in the community.
In Mtandire, Anita (not really name) is now hopeful that with the legal clinics, “I’ll see my former husband supporting the four children he left behind.”
A Lilongwe District community development Assistant, Catherine Gondwe, agrees that while there is a general reduction of GBV cases in the area, Covid-19 has pushed women and girls into tight corners due to moderate activities.
“Land grabbing was rampant with so many women left with little or nothing to do after the death of their husbands. This contributed to a rise in teen pregnancies as girls were left to fend for themselves while boys were involved in crime.
“Also, we used to have reported rape cases; almost five or more in a month. Awareness has made people to open up and talk,” explained Gondwe.
For Senior Group Mwanza, awareness in her area has empowered women and their daughters and “they now feel safe and protected from GBV.”
The GJU legal clinics are complemented by walk-in and telephone legal assistance services; legal research into the broader gender equality and social justice challenges that Malawi faces.
The GJU is implementing the programme with support from Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (Osisa) and Trócaire.
Tempelhof is upbeat on scaling up the interventions “hoping we will secure continued support so that we can reach even more women and girl.”
“In future, we also hope to undertake advocacy as well as strategic litigation to bring about changes in the oppressive laws or policies that obstruct the achievement of gender equality or social justice,” says Tempelhof.