The SADC Gender Protocol Barometer 2020 report was launched on Monday, with unfortunate revelations on how the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening gains that Southern Africa has made towards sexual reproductive health and rights in the last decade.
The 12th report, which is produced annually, showed that the pandemic has impacted negatively on seven thematic areas affecting millions of women and girls in the region.
Running under the #VoiceandChoice, the barometer measured 100 indicators in seven thematic areas that included sexual and reproductive health; adolescent SRHR; gender based violence, HIV and Aids, climate change and harmful practices such as child marriages.
While over the years the thrust has mainly been on climate change and women’s political participation, this year the barometer focused on health-related issues, making use of the SADC sexual reproductive health and rights strategy that was adopted by regional health ministers in 2018 as a template.
The reversal in gains has largely been hinged on a mismatch on the availability, and in some instances accessibility, to health care resources at a time when most governments are fully focusing on managing the impact of Covid-19.
Over the months, the barometer noted that the rapid increase in Covid-19 cases has put a strain on many health systems.
Several countries in the region are closing or offering limited services such as life-saving interventions owing to the severity of the pandemic that has disrupted normal health operations of any country.
As a result, people have not been getting health services such as regular check-ups like pap smears, vaccinations or even urgent medical care outside Covid-19.
Several women and girls are now skipping important medical check-ups for fear of contracting the virus. In some instances, the services are no longer readily available as most resources are being channelled towards Covid-19.
There are also fears that if lockdown restrictions continue in different regions and countries, these may disrupt global supply chains, leading to shortages of contraceptives.
Generally, most countries recorded a 20 percent surge in domestic violence cases owing to various reasons.
With most couples finding themselves living under one roof most of the time owing to lockdown restrictions, there has been an increase in reported cases of domestic violence, some of them fatal.
Since January, cases of GBV have spiked in several SADC countries, notably South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana.
Cases that have been attended to by the police and development partners in the SADC member states paint a gloomy picture and the region needs to respond with urgency and share notes on good practice to end this scourge.
The regional bloc is worried and has taken a front seat in speaking out against GBV.
Speaking on Covid-19 and Gender Based Violence and Domestic Violence recently, SADC executive secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax expressed deep concern over the increase.
She noted with concern the spike in cases of domestic violence across the globe, particularly following the lockdown measures instituted by governments to contain the spread of the virus.
The increase, sadly, is set to erode the gains that had seen a decline in gender-based violence owing to increased community awareness and individual decisions not to engage in any forms of abuse.
HIV and Aids
SADC, which is home to 4.6 percent of the world’s population, has 45 percent of people living with HIV in the world.
In the last 10 years, the region recorded significant progress towards achieving the UNAIDS 2020 targets of 90 percent on awareness of status, access to treatment and suppression of the virus.
The region had also seen a decline in new infections of adolescent girls and young women.
This has been as a result of member countries’ efforts in raising awareness on the dangers of HIV and Aids, testing and increasing access to anti-retroviral therapy.
Most countries in the region recorded an increase in voluntary male circumcision, which is said to be crucial in reducing the rate of HIV infection by 60 percent.
However, the barometer notes with concern that all the progress made could be eroded as more resources and health priorities are being channelled towards prevention and further spread of Covid-19.
Expertise, analytical capacity, laboratories and testing, surveillance and monitoring systems developed through HIV funding are now under-pinning Covid-19 responses.
Activists and community organisations that have long been active in the HIV arena are leading efforts to support community prevention and management of Covid-19.
Barometer 2020 notes that it is anticipated that the economic challenges that most people will find themselves in owing to the effects of Covid-19 will force more women into sex work, where they are likely to experience high levels of sexual exploitation.
That development alone will result in an increase in new HIV infections, unwanted pregnancy and an increase in gender-based violence cases.
Windows of Opportunity
But the pandemic has also opened opportunities to explore multi-sector approaches for achieving gender equality by 2030.
Given the coronavirus’ current situation which required strict lockdown, several families and individuals had time to introspect on gender roles and stereotypes.
For years, it had always been perceived that unpaid care work was mainly for women because of socialisation,where roles such as cooking, cleaning and looking after the family were deemed “feminine”.
With the ongoing lockdowns that have seen both men and women working from home, with some women being taken sick and men doing household chores to minimise infection, there is no reason anymore to believe that only women can do those chores.
With men having shared household chores during the lockdown period, it gives hope that they will realise the burden that women have been bearing for past decades and will continue sharing responsibilities.
That gender sensitisation should also cascade to all spheres, which calls for gender equality.
But, of course, it would be naïve to think that men will discard decades of old habits within a couple of months.
There is, therefore, an urgent need to sensitise households on the importance of gender equality and social cohesion as part of the new normal.