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Malawi and the ‘Shadow Pandemic’: How to Win the Battle on GBV under Covid-19

Written in the author's personal capacity.

It is critical for all activists, communities, and organizations to continue violence prevention efforts and mitigate emerging risks for victims and survivors. These efforts can help all of us navigate the pandemic with greater safety, solidarity, and resilience- without losing sight of our vision for supporting safe communities where all women and children can live dignified lives, free from violence.” ~ Raising Voices Guidance Note 2020.

Malawi declared its first 3 coronavirus cases on 2 April 2020. By Kamuzu Day, this number had multiplied 21 times to 63 and we recorded 3 Covid-19 deaths and 24 recoveries. A 21-day lockdown was ordered on 18 April, which was not to see the light of day due to a court injunction granted to massive opposition to its bans on public gatherings, closure of schools, bans on international flights and cross-border passenger buses. With over 70% of Malawi’s population living under the international poverty line ($1.90 a day), according to the World Bank, these measures were foreseen to affect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. The government had yet no answers to many of the questions the injunction raised. All things equal, we would have been coming out of the lockdown at the end of last week.

But even in the absence of a formal lockdown, Covid-19’s mobility restrictions are potentially going to disproportionately affect women and girls in many ways, among which is an escalation of gender-based violence (GBV). In this article, I explore how Malawi is prepared to prevent GBV, which UN Women currently dubs “a shadow pandemic”. UN Women reports that cases of violence are likely to increase as worries around security, health and earnings heighten, in turn straining domestic relations as cramped and confined living conditions persist.

GBV has been recognized as a public health issue during pandemics, and it’s no surprise that many development organizations are highlighting this shadow pandemic as an important aspect that demands serious attention in the era of Covid-19. GBV advocates and experts must be considered as essential workers alongside health workers.

In countries hit hard by Covid-19, child abuse and intimate partner violence have been reportedly on the rise as extensive lockdowns remain in effect. As Covid-19 forces millions of people to turn to virtual professional and non-professional lives, cyberviolence and cyberbullying are also worsening. The difficult question for those bearing the duty to protect is how to prevent and respond to these variants of GBV during lockdowns. Women and children are at high risk and unable to access essential services because of self-isolation orders and restrictions on movement. Some advanced countries with tech-savvy approaches have devised technologies to enable victims to report on incidences of violence in their homes. In China, for example, advocates started the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic, which is helping to break the silence and expose violence. Other countries have allocated funding to support civil society organizations providing essential services on GBV.

Malawi, where a proper lockdown is yet to take effect, key organizations heeded to the early warning on preventing the shadow pandemic and have worked to curb any spikes in GBV. This seems to be working.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Gender, the United Nations, International and local NGOs and civil society have re-energized efforts on GVB measures in a commendable way by innovatively integrating the shadow pandemic in their humanitarian response. This, I must admit, has been possible following declaration of a State of National Disaster on Covid-19 the President made on 20 March.

As an essential worker myself, it’s pleasing to note that the reactivation of the GBV discourse has enabled the mobilization of key stakeholders to be alert in case of a full lockdown. As such, among several measures are to ensure that those working in GBV strengthen and enhance essential protection services for women and children, managing functioning hotlines and referral systems, monitoring, reporting and provisioning feedback channels to the response. Those working in the national Protection Cluster, under which the GBV cluster functions, will work with health sector actors to ensure adequate access to health services for GBV cases and the necessary referral services for follow up and support survivors need.

Stakeholders are also ensuring frontline workers are trained in GBV, strengthening the capacity of gender officers and community development officers on prevention and to educate them on the referral pathways that exist for support. The United Nations in Malawi and the Government launched a flash appeal which urgently seeks US$ 139.2 million emergency funding for over 28 UN agencies and NGOs to support the Government of Malawi’s preparedness and response efforts for the next six months from May to October 2020. Out of the 8.3 million people in need, an estimated 7.5 million people will be targeted by the international community. Over 80 projects have been reported to be seeking to respond to the most immediate needs.

Malawi’s preparedness to address domestic violence or GBV under Covid-19 is impressive. Despite the great lineup of response activities, several factors are worth considering in order to enable better resource mobilization and re-programming of the existing GBV interventions. Government will have to step up as coordinator so that collaborations among partners are rationalized and that delivery and monitoring mechanisms are in place. The development sector must also take a more holistic approach that allows combining regular GBV programming and the mitigation of Covid-19 impacts.

Homeschooling girls in Malawi

Although we can’t report a rise in violence against women and girls with certainty since 20 March, school closures have raised the vulnerability of girls as Yandura Chipeta highlighted in an article of 27 April 2020 on this website. Furthermore, children out of school may also face heightened risks of all forms of violence, including violent discipline by family members and emotional abuse. Again, picking on Ms. Chipeta’s brain, the prospect of some children in resultant Covid-19 child marriages, child trafficking and transactional sex and online exploitation scares me. UNICEF observes, correctly, that removing children from a protective environment such as schools exacerbates these risks.

Covid-19 demands action from other sectors of society too. The private sector in Malawi, for example, is a critical player as most people will want to use hotline services, online platforms for virtual support groups, for reporting crimes and amplifying conversations on domestic violence. The challenge for a poor country like Malawi is the digital divide since the poorest can’t access information due to poor technology access. This is particularly going to be urgent should the pandemic become full-blown and more restrictive orders are instituted.

We’re on the right track. The proactive leadership of GoM, the UN and development partners is key to solving problems.




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