As with any global crisis, women have been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has exacerbated already gaping inequalities for women and girls across the globe and in every conceivable sphere, from health and the economy, to security and social protection. Writes Jeffrey Smith
Adding to this ominous outlook, data suggests that an already catastrophic-level abuse against women is now on the rise. Domestic violence in particular, according to one eloquent observer, is “acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
Relatedly, and well before the coronavirus entered our daily lives and vocabularies, women were facing an epidemic of their own: unprecedented levels of political violence. In 2019, for example, one study found that political violence against women had reached “some of the highest levels ever recorded.” In this same study, gender-based violence, namely abductions and forced disappearances of women, were found to be especially evident in Africa when compared to other regions.
In light of this prevailing context, recent events in several African nations – Zimbabwe, Uganda and Egypt – are not surprising to women and should not be surprising to anyone else. But these examples nonetheless stand out for their perniciousness and merit added scrutiny.
First, in Zimbabwe, three women affiliated with the country’s pro-democracy opposition, including a sitting member of parliament, were abducted from police custody and brutally assaulted over a 24-hour span. MP Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marowa, and Cecilia Chimbiri all remain in the hospital and have since spoken out on the unspeakable crimes committed against them after being discovered on the side of a road. Instead of taking the allegations seriously, authorities in Zimbabwe, including the Justice Minister, have publicly disgraced themselves by claiming – in an entirely new level of gaslighting women’s experiences – that they had imagined the entire ordeal and may themselves face prosecution. In a further twist on victim-blaming, the (now apparently sacked) Deputy Minister of Information told folks on Twitter that the attacks perpetrated against these women were the result of a “romantic night … with their lovers.”
Sadly, this isn’t a novel phenomenon in Zimbabwe. Recall just last year that comedian and government critic Samantha Kureya was herself abducted, beaten and forced to drink sewage before being “dumped” in the suburbs of the capital Harare. This incident is eerily familiar and fits a longstanding pattern of violence against Zimbabwean women in order to silence them. Lest we forget the abduction and torture of Jestina Mukoko, the persecution of Beatrice Mtetwa, and the repeated beatings, arrests and torture inflicted against Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, and countless other female activists, from Women of Zimbabwe Arise. The list goes on and on. In each of these cases, authorities have at one point denied their involvement. This wave of COVID-era violence is just a continuation of the use of a very old playbook.
Meanwhile in Uganda, Dr. Stella Nyanzi – a university lecturer, human rights activist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side of the country’s long-ruling president Yoweri Museveni – was arrested for “inciting violence” as she helped lead a protest against the slow distribution of food and relief goods to vulnerable people affected by the country’s coronavirus lockdown. The protest was also meant to raise awareness about the rising deaths of expectant mothers, as well as patients with chronic diseases, who have struggled to find transportation to hospitals. Photos of Dr. Nyanzi’s arrest and manhandling by police officers quickly went viral and drew rightful rebuke. But as in Zimbabwe, the past is precedent in Uganda. Recall that just last year a court convicted Dr. Nyanzi on charges of so-called “cyber-harassment” and sentenced her to jail, a decision that was criticized by human rights groups around the world. Again, the violence is directly motivated by a desire to silence outspoken women who threaten a male-dominated power structure.
Also this week, Lina Attalah – editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, one of a shrinking number of independent news sites in Egypt – was arrested and detained by the country’s infamously ruthless security forces. The regime of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has long harassed Mada Masr and its staff, including Ms. Attalah, who has been arrested and violently detained before, as recently as last November. It is very telling that Egypt was ranked among the world’s top jailers of journalists last year, and also has an epidemic of targeted violence against women. The trend of censoring women and critics through violence are two sides of the same coin. In particular, “violence committed against women by institutions of the state” has long remained on a disturbing scale, according to numerous human rights groups, both domestic and international. The unrelenting persecution of Ms. Attalah provides stark testament to this fact.
In each of these contexts – in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Egypt – the mistreatment of prominent female voices is part of a larger, and longstanding global trend. However, the coronavirus pandemic is now threatening to worsen these already unacceptable conditions for women around the world. Amid the pleas for peace and appeals for a global ceasefire, I have yet to come across an equally robust call for equal rights and equal respect for women who are clearly encountering a lion’s share of the coronavirus fallout.
It is imperative that leaders and government officials worldwide take concrete steps to not only respond to the unique needs of women during this current crisis, but to also take the underlying culture of violence against women seriously and make serious policies to effectively end it.