Women’s rights during the COVID-19 pandemic

My name is Otilia Chinyani. I am a young Zimbabwean woman who is an advocate for women’s rights and a strong believer of feminist ideologies. My activism is largely through Katswe Sistahood, a young women organisation that strives for the full attainment of sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of all women in Zimbabwe and the region. In a bid to ensure young women’s access to SRHR information and services, our strategy is centred in the 4As approach, that is Assessment, Awareness raising, Access and Advocacy/Action. As a movement we believe that for transformative change to happen interventions should target all circles of influence starting with the individual to the family, community then society.

Zimbabwe has not been spared from the negative implications of the COVID 19 pandemic. I still live with the uncertainty of what might be, the fear and anxiety of how as a country we are going to be hit, but I am still grateful for each new day. I get so terrified every time I hear news on how the virus is spreading. Every time I leave the house for work, I pray that I do not put my child, my family, friends, and colleagues at risk. As an activist my “normal’’ has always been being in the communities trying to bring a positive shift to women’s realities. The first weeks of total lockdown were especially hard for me because in my head, I knew the extent at which a lot of people were affected. Many women survive from hand to mouth and this made it impossible for them to stock up food prior the lockdown. What made is worse is how businesses took advantage of the situation and prices of basic food kept rising.

The lock down saw an increase in the cases of violence against women and girls. The restrictions in movements made it near to impossible for victims to seek for support. Perpetrators were justifying violence claiming that it was due to hunger frustrations. It is difficult to imagine a woman being locked down with an abuser.

In a bid to respond to women’s SRHR and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) needs, Katswe Sistahood has been conducting online awareness raising sessions using diverse social media platforms. Katswe has also been offering counselling and legal advice for victims and referring them for further support. This enabled Katswe to document the experiences of women amidst the pandemic which have then been directed to the relevant offices. Among the key challenges faced by women are lack of access to contraceptives. Through a voucher system Katswe is linking women with Population Services Zimbabwe so that they can access contraceptives, cancer screening, STI screening and treatment and other SRHR services for free. Since the lockdown started Katswe Sistahood has supported over 200 women to access SRHR services, especially contraceptives. I am coordinating a program that is targeting faith communities and religious leaders on prevention of violence against women and girls. During this period, I supported the community activists to create WhatsApp groups. Using these platforms, there are ongoing dialogues on power dynamics, violence, and gender norms with the aim of changing knowledge, behaviours and practices related to violence.

To reach out to the most vulnerable women, Katswe Sistahood is partnering with the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Publicity, City Health, Perch Media Trust, Amnesty International and other civil society organisations to conduct a street campaign on COVID 19 and SGBV prevention and response. Using a mobile roadshow truck the partnership has been able to reach out to over 20 communities which include high density suburbs, mining communities, farming communities and peri-urban communities. Part of the messaging emphasises the need for victims of violence to reach out for support. As the SGBV coordinator, I have been greatly involved in the street campaign and it has been worrying how despite the lockdown most people are going about their business like any other day. I can always tell the desperation in people’s voices and their faces as they explain that they cannot stay home because there was nothing to eat. Their defence is that it is either we die from COVID 19 or hunger. At times both men and women engage on the information on prevention and response to SGBV. It is encouraging how at times people immediately observe the COVID 19 precautions as you engage whilst others would attentively listen to where victims of violence can get help.

With Zimbabwe being under phase 2 lockdown, Katswe has secured PPEs and we have started physical sessions and trainings with women and men, religious leaders, and faith communities on SGBV prevention, SRHR and HIV. I conducted a training on meaningful male engagement which reached out to 60 community activists who were representing different faith communities. With the increase of SGBV cases, it is important to ensure that the community activists are capacitated with knowledge and skills to engage men as well as collectively strategise on how to mobilise men. Katswe Sistahood is also supporting teen mothers from different communities to raise income through skills training on making reusable pads and face masks. The aim is to reduce their vulnerability to violence, especially sexual violence as well as build their financial muscle so that they are not fully dependent for financial support. To date we have managed to train 80 teen mothers. Concerned about the increase of HIV prevalence among young people, Katswe in partnership with Youth Engage has identified and in the process of training youth facilitators from four districts. The aim is for the facilitators to reach out to their peers with information on SRHR, SGBV and HIV.

With the rates of local infections increasing daily the worry is will Zimbabwe be hit as hard as predicted. Is it a time to worry about the economy whilst people’s health is it risk? The global change has been a shock to everyone, especially since as people we were used to face to face interactions. Mental health remains a key component which needs to be prioritised. My recommendation is for TFT to create spaces for development workers to centre themselves and breathe. As an activist I am out there every day trying to make as much impact as I can I hardly get the time connect with myself. Such a platform will enable me to be more effective and collected.

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