In Africa, cases of human rights violations including gender-based violence such as sexual harassment, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic and sexual violence have been on the rise, particularly with the containment measures for COVID-19. This threatens to reverse the accumulated gains made in realizing gender equality on the continent. Data shows that more than 50 million girls under the age of 14 years in Africa are at-risk of FGM, while more than 115 million women, were married as girls. Experts have cautioned that if progress is not accelerated, it will take almost 50 years to end child marriage.

To accelerate action on protecting women and girls from gender-based violence, the African Union Commission through the Women, Gender and Development Directorate together with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Women, convened a multi-stakeholder Policy Dialogue as part of the activities to commemorate 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. 

The dialogue aimed to mobilize the commitment of African Union Member States and other stakeholders, for more actions to ensure the pandemic does not lead to a deprioritization of the rights of women and girls and reverse the achievements made in advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women. While several existing laws have been enacted to address gender-based violence and harmful practices, effective enforcement has been lacking and that allocated resources such as funding, institutional and human resource in the relevant sectors are insufficient.

The Policy Dialogue was provided a platform to evaluate what has worked and is working, the remaining gaps and innovative strategies on how to secure the gains of women and girls during and post the COVID-19 crisis as well as in the recovery process. The meeting adopted a Call for Action, to addresses the practical needs of women and girls and their strategic interests in multi-sectoral responses to gender-based violence within the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendation for addressing gender-based violence were stipulated to ensure women and girls benefit from immediate protection and interventions such as the provision of one-stop center and safe houses; access to medical services and trained personnel for clinical management of gender-based violence; access to information for the most vulnerable women and girls, including those with disabilities and inclusion of sign language, accessible digital technology; and access to immediate psychosocial support as well as reporting mechanisms including hotlines.

To advance strategic actions, the Dialogue recommended: the inclusion of gender-responsive social protection systems and mechanisms; enhanced surveillance and response systems that include disaggregated health data by age, sex, and other crucial data on pregnancy status, disability among others. The economic support and empowerment for women and girls as well as capacity building of healthcare workers at all levels to respond to gender-based violence, were also restated.

Speaking on behalf of UN Women Executive Director, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Ms. Marie Goretti Nduwayo, Liaison Adviser highlighted the game changing effect that collaboration between scientists, governments, civil society and industry has had on the COVID-19 pandemic noting that collaboration of such nature and at scale is needed to end VAWG at all levels in society. She noted that the Generation Equality Forum and its multi-stakeholder Action Coalitions reflect this consistent, holistic approach with a five-year plan to engage on change that is systematic and lasting. 

She emphasized the importance of cultural changes that help prevent violence against women and girls in the first place. “We have to shift the stereotypes and attitudes that shame survivors and normalize and excuse the perpetrators. And we must engage allies in this, including men and boys”. 

As she concluded, she underscored the importance of an urgent resolve to put combined resources and commitment to end violence against women and girls for good.The African Union Commission Acting Director for Women, Gender and Development Directorate, Victoria Maloka stated that while on one hand women can celebrate the achievements on gender equality and women’s empowerment such as gains made over the 25 years of Beijing, 20 years of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and 10 years of the African Women’s Decade, 2020 has posed great regression on the gender gains as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “2020 will go down in history as a year of many contradictions. 

While we rejoice over the findings of the Africa Beijing +25 review report that health outcomes in Africa have improved substantially, with improvements in health expenditure and access to healthcare services by children and women. The health sector was the hardest hit by the pandemic, with women’s access to services impacted as resources were diverted from routine health services and women’s healthcare needs to COVID-19”, she noted.

Adwoa Kufuor, Officer in Charge and Regional Gender Advisor at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, East Africa Regional Office, observed that the pandemic should be seen as a call to action to seize the opportunity to take action to end gender-based violence. This required addressing gender-based discrimination and recognition that gender-based violence harms not only women, but their children, communities and society as a whole. 

She reminded participants that women’s access to education, justice, economic livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health services and recognition of care work are no luxuries but basic rights and should be integral to requirements in the COVID-19 response and recovery process and operations. As has been shown by the pandemic, if anyone is at risk, everyone is at risk. Kufuor reiterated the need to ensure equal participation of women in all measures to respond to COVID-19 and to increase efforts to collect data that is disaggregated by sex, gender as well as intersecting forms of discrimination. Finally, she highlighted the need to have women, including young women, effectively participate in the development of norms, policies and programs that address the needs of women, which can only be done by standing up for women’s rights.

The Chief, ad-interim and Officer-In-Charge at the UNFPA Liaison Office to the African Union, Caroline Ngonze underscored the importance of data in addressing gender-based violence, elaborating on the UNFPA’s recently launched geospatial dashboard on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) that features national data for 119 countries, 34 of them in Africa, that captures disaggregated data on IPV by age, place of residence, employment, education, and household wealth. “We must foster respect for women and girls by changing cultural attitudes and practices that dehumanize and commoditize them. Governments must fulfill their obligations under human rights treaties that require the elimination of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage. All these actions require up-to-date reliable data on GBV and harmful practices”, she observed.

On her part, Memouna Baboni Yacoubou, Chairperson of the Expert group of the Bureau of the African Union Specialized Technical Committee on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment lauded the actions by 135 countries globally, who have since strengthened measures and resources to address violence against women as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, following the call by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in April 2020, for the maintenance of “peace at home”. She added, “It is for women and girls living in Africa that peace at home should take on its full meaning and generate the greatest dividend. For it is traditionally accepted that African civilizations place a price on human and family values. Let us seek together innovative strategies adapted both to modernity and to African morals and customs of justice.”

Since April 2020, the African member states have been implementing the African Union Guidelines on Gender Responsive Responses to COVID-19.