A 'second pandemic': African countries hit by a wave of sexual violence

Will Brown
Protesters wearing face mask, hold placards and banners outside the Nigerian Police Headquarters in Abuja, the capital, during a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual violence on June 5, 2020.  - KOLA SULAIMON /AFP
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At the age of 14, armed men came to Thérèse’s town in Eastern Congo. When the shooting started, the townsfolk scattered in all directions. 

The diminutive girl found herself alone, separated from her family. After hours of hiding in the forest, she tried to sneak back to her home to find them.  Instead, three men caught her. She doesn’t know if they belonged to the military or a militia, they just raped her again and again. 

Nine months later, she gave birth alone in a camp for the displaced. But Thérèse’s small body could not cope. A tear opened between her vagina wall and bladder and she developed a fistula, meaning urine leaks out constantly, preventing her from going back to school and leaving her isolated and ashamed. 

“I lived in a family of people of good faith in the town of Tshikapa [in Kasai Province]. I was hopeless, given the conditions in which I lived, I was simply waiting for death,” she says. 

Aid workers eventually found her and made plans to fly her to a clinic for surgery to repair her fistula. But since the pandemic came, the planes have stopped. Resources are being pumped into battling Covid-19, leaving Thérèse and her small child in limbo.  

Her story is just one of millions. Across the world, lockdowns and financial hardship have unleashed an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence and left many victims bereft of the help or medical attention they desperately need.

The trend has been noted in countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Now there is growing evidence that many African countries are also being struck.  

In June, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa took to national television to declare a "second pandemic" of gender-based violence after Tshegofatso Pule, an eight-months-pregnant 28-year-old, was found hanging from a tree with multiple stab wounds in a suburb of Johannesburg.  

“Over the past few weeks, no fewer than 21 women and children have been murdered. Their killers thought they could silence them. But we will not forget them and we will speak for them where they cannot,” Mr Ramaphosa said last week. 

There was also widespread outrage in Nigeria this month after 22-year-old university student Uwavera Omozuwa was raped and died. She was discovered with her head smashed in by a fire extinguisher in a church in Benin City, Southern Nigeria. After a string of other similarly horrific rapes and murders, the governors of Nigeria’s 36 states declared a state of emergency on rape earlier this month. 

Thérèse sits with her mother and small child after being reunited by aidworkers. - ICRC

Nigeria has long had an alarming prevalence of sexual violence and impunity for rapists for years. However, since the pandemic, Africa’s most populous nation has reportedly seen a threefold increase in the number of calls to domestic and sexual violence hotlines.  

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Covid-19 measures such as curfews are making it more difficult for victims to access healthcare, says Sarah Khenati, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who works with sexual violence victims in the East of the country.   

“The numbers on rapes we have are just the tip of the iceberg. Some communities are avoiding health centres because they’re scared of infection of both coronavirus and Ebola,” Ms Khenati added. 

“Since the start of the pandemic, more than 100 cases of domestic violence have been recorded, only one of which was against a man,” said Ndèye Dieumb Diagne from the Association for the promotion of Senegalese Women in the city of Kaolack.   

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“We can safely say that Covid-19 has aggravated these [acts of violence].”

At the same time, officials are reporting a huge increase in the numbers of forced marriages and in the rates of female genitalia mutilation in countries like Somalia, as parents take advantage of their girls being temporarily out of school.   

Across Africa parents have been "rampantly" marrying off their daughters since the pandemic began, according to Victoria Maloka, from the African Union’s Commission on Women, Gender and Development.   

While Thérèse cannot receive her life-changing surgery or go to school yet, after more than a year of separation, aid workers at the ICRC managed to track her mother down and reunite them.

“She hadn’t had any hope of seeing me alive since the armed violence broke out. As she already thought I was dead, at first she asked me on the phone if it was really me, if it was not another person who spoke like me,” says Thérèse. 

“I had immense joy in me. The joy made me cry.” 

  • Thérèse's name has been changed

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