Violence and sexual assault have surged across the globe since the onset of Covid-19, in what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic”. Even before the pandemic, one in three women experienced physical or sexual assault globally, the World Health Organization reported this week.
In Africa, the impact has been particularly acute. In the first half of 2020, a rise in reported cases prompted Liberia’s President Weah to declare rape and all forms of gender-based violence a national emergency.
The same has happened in my country, South Africa. Gender-based violence (GBV) has been exacerbated by lockdown measures, making girls and women more vulnerable to attack and reducing their ability to access support systems.
Support centres recorded a 65% increase in calls from women and children confined to their homes. Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the establishment of a GBV national council – but rape and femicide continue unabated.
The rule of law, access to justice and due process are core components of gender equality, and remain the foundation through which people’s rights can be upheld and enforced. However, courts have closed, trials have been suspended and victims have fewer legal services available at a time when they need them the most. As noted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “resources are being diverted away from the criminal justice system towards more immediate public health measures to deal with Covid-19”.
Problems persisted well before the pandemic. Deep societal divisions, political strife and underfunded institutions have tested the rule of law in many countries, leading to civil unrest, and often war. In these situations, limited state authority and lawlessness favour the prevalence of sexual violence and enable a culture of impunity.
Recognising that a weakened rule of law facilitates the conditions that enable sexual violence, the international community has in recent years taken steps to strengthen governments’ ability to deliver justice for survivors.