COVID-19 Could Expose Girls & Young Women To Sexual Violence & Exploitation Warns Plan International Zim

PLAN International Zimbabwe has warned of an upsurge in sexual violence and deprivation of economic and social opportunities for girls and young women at the back of the prevailing COVID-19 which has already disrupted livelihoods.

By Michael Gwarisa

In Zimbabwe, the COVID 19 pandemic has emerged at a time when the national public health system, economic environment is extremely fragile, and the country is still recovering from the effects of Cyclone Idai disaster which hit the country in 2019.

In an interview with HealthTimes, Plan International Zimbabwe Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights (SRHR) Technical lead,  Rachael Goba said disease outbreaks and pandemics like COVID-19 affect women and men, girls and boys differently and exacerbate existing inequalities and discrimination against women and girls as well as other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities and those in extreme poverty.

Our experience working in Zimbabwe and other countries is that in crisis times like disease outbreaks, women and girls are often at higher risk.All these make it extremely difficult to be unable to secure the safety and protection of Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) and their families. Additionally, the country is currently in a humanitarian crisis due to the drought that has plunged the population into a food crisis.

“Among rural households, women and girls reduce their share of food to cater for men and boys, respectively. When food is not enough, it is reported that it’s the women and girls who device strategies for getting other substitutes. (Plan International Zimbabwe, Rapid Assessment on the situation of children, 2019). COVID-19 has presented an opportunity of sexual violence and exploitation against girls as “part of the devised strategies” in order to ensure food provision at household level,” said Goba.

She added that others may be forced into sex work in a bid to survive the tough economic environment and the drought induced hunger post COVID-19 induced lockdown. At the moment, over 5 million Zimbabweans are food insecure – 2.2 million of these being in urban areas (United Nations (UN) Flash appeal- August 2019).

“All these further worsens the poverty levels of girls and presents’ new STI and HIV incidences, unwanted pregnancies, stigma and mental health problems amongst the girls. The COVID-19 crisis within Zimbabwe has negatively impacted on the access to SRHR services for adolescent girls and young women.

“This includes SRH information and counseling, contraception services, safe post abortion care, maternal and new-born health services, gender-based violence (GBV) services, STIs/HIV, infertility and reproductive cancers, which could result in increased risk of teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortion and possible and complications of pregnancy during labour.

‘’These consequently will lead to unmonitored home deliveries, maternal and new-born morbidity and mortality. Additionally, adolescent girls and young women living with HIV may fail to access their ARVs and naturally default hence reversing the gains made in HIV.  Globally the supply chain for essential SRHR services has been affected and this has trickled into Zimbabwe where commodity security has been compromised.”

The lockdown period in Zimbabwe was preceded by sudden school closures impacting more than 5 million children, including adolescent girls. School closures have also put additional strain and demand on girls: According to UNESCO, 1.52 billion students (87 percent) and over 60 million teachers are now home as COVID-19 school closures expand. Recent data shows that adolescent girls spend significantly more hours on chores compared to their male counterparts (UNICEF, Plan International, UN Women (2020).

“More significantly with the anticipated prolonged school closure and disruption of livelihoods which has affected food security at household level, its likely to see girls’ education being sacrificed especially among poor families which may find an upsurge in child marriages. Schools in Zimbabwe have also been a source of comprehensive sexuality education which increases access to information and builds agency of girls in relation to their sexual reproductive health and rights.

“Non accessibility to this information may result in girl’s failure to practise body autonomy, get social protection and increase their risks to sexual abuse. Unfortunately, this will also see an increase in teenage pregnancies which in turn will increase the poor nutritional status of pregnant and lactating girls. The number of home deliveries being attended to by unskilled workers will increase and additionally teenage pregnancies may result in unsafe abortions. All these factors further plunges the country into higher maternal and infant mortalities and morbidity,” added Goba.

Meanwhile, Plan also warned of rise in child labour especially amongst the girl child population to urban areas in search of opportunities such as domestic work to assist their parents in fending for the families back in the rural areas may increase.

“This will further put the girls and young women at risk of child-trafficking, some even to across the boarders especially for border towns such as Beitbridge. This signifies an increased number of child labour cases being perpetrated on the girl child including unpaid work for food and in the nearest future, street vending by especially urban girls in order to achieve food security at house hold level.

"Such a scenario makes the girl child prone to sexual, emotional and physical abuse and living on the streets as a permanent solution which has a direct detriment on their health and social well- being.  Girls will not thrive and this poverty cycle will continue to their off-springs.’’

In Zimbabwe, COVID 19 has also  triggered a rise in food prices due to closure of markets that has prevented farmers from selling their production thus reducing food supply. Most young women are in informal trading where they are vendors and cross boarder traders which has assisted in achieving food security at house hold level.

“COVID-19 has been highly recognised as a public health crisis within Zimbabwe but with neglect to the direct/indirect impact it has on other social protection issues that include food security, gender inequality and education. Zimbabwe particular is faced with a unique challenge when it comes to the pandemic as it has come  at a time where the country is in a devastating food insecurity emergency, hence it is plunging the country into a multi layered  protection crisis where unfortunately the worst impacted are girls due to their vulnerability.

“Others may be forced into sex work. All these further worsens the poverty levels of girls and presents’ new STI and HIV incidences, unwanted pregnancies, stigma and mental health problems amongst the girls.”

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