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Tatenda Nhapi,
Research Associate, University of Johannesburg, Dept. Social Work and Community Development, South Africa

COVID induced social injustices for women and girls Perspectives from Zimbabwe

There is need for understanding COVID induced social injustices in Zimbabwe from a social work perspective. The article reviews the context factors and drivers of women and girls’ vulnerability within the rural and urban areas. The article conducts a situational analysis of the policies and response strategies to social injustices Zimbabwean women and girls are experiencing in the ongoing and pervasive COVID pandemic. Some of the recommendations discussed include developing more robust social work and allied professions’ collaborative approaches to enrich women and girls adaptive, absorptive and transformative capacities in the face of COVID-19 induced social injustice.

It is important to note that Zimbabwe aims at achieving its prioritised Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 3 and SDG 5.This is by implementing interventions which sustainably contribute towards the unequal gender power relations elimination and tackle socio-cultural, religious, economic and political root causes of Sexual and Gender Based Violence.According to Egger, Miguel, Warren, Shenoy, Collins ,Karlan, Dou and others (2021) for Global South countries the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 may become as much a public health and societal disaster as the pandemic itself. Zimbabwe’s fragile economy represents the greatest challenge in the fight against COVID-19. Economic decline has exacerbated the delivery of critical services such as health and the provision of water, which ensure COVID-19 prevention. The rapidly depreciating local currency is forcing service providers to increase their prices, with negative implications for preparedness efforts as goods and services are rising each week (United Nations United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2020).

Undeniably, COVID-19 has upended the lives of children and families globally and adversely affected programmes to end child marriage. According to UNFPA (2020) the child marriage threat is far greater when communities are affected by economic shocks. These communities’ navigation of COVID-19 pandemic negative effects is characterised by limited access to basic services such as health, education and child protection.

As of 12 March 2021, the cumulative number of confirmed cases increased from 33,548 including 1,217 deaths on 1 February 2021 to 36,321 cases, including 33,919 recoveries and 1,496 deaths (United Nations Zimbabwe Country Programme, 2021).

Nevertheless, Zimbabwe saw a sharp increase in protection concerns during the COVID-19 lockdown, including gender-based violence. OCHA (2020) noted that from January to December 2020, 8,563 GBV cases were reported through the National GBV Hotline, about 175 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2019, when 4,876 GBV cases were reported through the Hotline. Before the pandemic, GBV was a pressing issue in Zimbabwe. On the basis of a 2019 Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) survey 39.4% of women aged 15-49 had experienced violence since age 15 and 11.6% had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. 33.7% of women aged 20-24 years were first married or in a union before they were 18 years old (Martin & Ahlenback, 2020).

Pertinently, measures applied to help stop the spread of COVID-19 worsened the food security situation in Zimbabwe and amplified pre-existing inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic has wide ranging implications for women’s economic situation and rights, which were already restricted before the crisis. The lockdown restrictions have had significant impacts on informal workers, agriculture workers and cross-border traders, which represent large percentages of women, as marketplaces and borders have closed and footfall has decreased. School closures have disrupted girls’ education and increased the risk of child marriage and early pregnancy. Steps taken to contain the spread of COVID-19, including quarantines, social distancing, movement restrictions and other stay-at-home measures have increased the risks of domestic violence due to forced coexistence and curtailed access to support services for survivors (Martin & Ahlenback, 2020).

Key drivers reinforcing COVID-19 induced social injustices

In the following section key drivers of social injustices to women and children are analysed. Essentially, women are the primary caregivers of the family and the community as a whole. They are central to providing for family’s meals, nursing the sick, providing a safe and clean environment. However, with the imposition of lockdown restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, women are finding themselves taking more and more responsibilities and experiencing more emotional strain ( Kaiyo-Utete, 2020).

When it comes to the rights of vulnerable girls and child marriage, COVID has had an impact on girls’ health, education, safety, financial situations and wellbeing in both the short- and long-term (Girls Not Brides, 2021). Losses of household income and job losses are creating situations of extreme poverty and economic insecurity for families; issues that will continue to arise for poorer households and communities as poverty continues to be a driver of child marriage in the wake of COVID.

There are several reports of child marriages taking place in Zimbabwe since the COVID-19 outbreak, including NGO workers warning that child marriage is being used as a negative coping strategy amidst economic hardships (based on reports from traditional leaders and Village Health Workers). GBV shelters report that they have received girls who have been at risk of experiencing or have experienced child marriage during COVID-19 (Martin & Ahlenback, 2020).

The United Nations Child define marriage as a marriage or informal union under age 18 years and a manifestation of gender inequality resulting in lifelong negative consequences for the health, well-being, and rights of millions of adolescent girls. According to Mulhorta and Elkinab (Malholtra & Elnakib, 2020) child marriage is closely associated with high early pregnancies rates, maternal and child mortality or morbidity, and intimate partner violence during adolescence and with intergenerational poverty, poor health, and disempowerment for married girls and their children over the longer term. Globally, child marriage prevalence among boys is just one sixth that among girls, with 5–20 times more girls married as children compared with boys in different countries. The range of sexual, reproductive, maternal, social, and economic consequences for girls are also much more severe than for boys (Malholtra & Elnakib, 2020)

Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development minister Sithembiso Nyoni made a parliamentary presentation on public service delivery levels related to sexual and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 outbreak. She noted that a total of 4 959 school girls fell pregnant while 1 774, young girls were forced into marriages (The Standard Newspaper, 2021).

Conclusions and Pathways for enhanced social workers support to children and women

In this section I outline strategies that can serve as pathways for social workers contribution to reduction of COVID induced social injustices for girls and women in Zimbabwe. Because of the pervasive social injustices occurring to women and girls which have been reinforced by COVID, social workers should not turn a blind eye. Social workers should not just wait to issue solidarity statements on the annual World Women’s day or during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. It is crucial that frontline social workers in day to day engagement with vulnerable service users harness their repertoire of professional curiosity skills. This allows to creatively engage with service users to better pinpoint vulnerabilities arising from abuse.

It is recommended that the representative social workers body in Zimbabwe, National Association of Social Workers partner with other key institutions like Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, PADARE Men’s Forum on Gender, Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission amongst others. Commissioning this cross-cutting collaboration would be fieldwork encompassing a knowledge and attitudes participatory action research for the desired outcomes social behavioural change regarding overcoming pervasive child marriage incidences in development and humanitarian contexts. Furthermore, such collaboration can strengthen an integrated approach to end child marriage with key sectors such as health, education and social protection. This is critical to ensure a holistic package of response services are delivered for adolescent girls at risk of child marriage or already in marriages.

In some contexts given their status as essential services social workers have been able to continue with frontline visits despite lockdowns. On such field visits or community meetings social workers should not be dissuaded by social distancing measures in targeting service users vulnerable to abuse. Furthermore, lockdowns measures may have made the enduring child protection committee system largely dysfunctional in communities however women and girls should be given awareness by social workers on available hotlines to report GBV and forced marriages. From January to December 2020, 8,563 GBV cases were reported through the National GBV Hotline, about 175 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2019, when 4,876 GBV cases were reported through the Hotline (United Nations United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2020).Crucially, social workers should engage with other state and non-state actors to ensure information dissemination about COVID trends and dynamics be complemented by vernacular languages based sensitisation for what communities should do in cases of suspected child marriages or GBV. In rural settings, the chiefs as custodians of the land should be empowered to prosecute villagers in cases of child marriages as it is in rural areas where this phenomena is rampant.

Furthermore, Department of Child Welfare and Probation Services (DCWPS) employed social workers should continue harnessing their close professional collaboration with Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Victim Friendly Unit. This robust collaboration is beneficial as it allows for rapid information sharing on GBV and perpetrators of child marriages. As reported by Muchetu in Nhapi and Mathende (2017, p. 8) ZRP was finalising automation of its fingerprints database. Thus, potentially a GBV perpetrators database could be created. Social services and non state actors as women’s support organisation Musasa project could also have data bases of child marriage victims. This allows for joint working and deconstruct working in silos when targeting overcoming child marriage and targeting GBV victims especially in hard-to-reach areas which have been made more inaccessible due to the services of COVID -19 induced lockdowns. Finally, it is laudable that on March 11, 2021,The Ministry of Primary and secondary Education, Microsoft and UNICEF officially launched the Learning passport in Zimbabwe. The Learning Passport has a goal of reaching 300,000 learners in 2021 (UNICEF, 2021).

Through tailor-made programs online, offline and mobile access the Learning Passport will offer simple, easy and fun ways to learn. The tool can reach the most vulnerable learners allowing children to learn at their own pace and hosts a digital library of teaching and learning resources covering the entire primary and secondary education curriculum. The Learning Passport will help in Government's efforts to ensure, no learner is left behind especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNICEF (2021), it also comes with different life skill courses for young people. The Learning passport should also incorporate life skills courses that signpost adolescent girls to a critical mass of helping agencies available at district, provincial and national levels in situations of child marriages or GBV. In conclusion the Zimbabwean fight against girl and women social injustices is not a preserve of feminists only and social workers should not be passively involved. As robust human rights defenders they should champion girls and women enhanced social functioning amidst the unprecedented COVID -19 pandemic.


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