COVID-19: A Costly Crisis for Women in Benin
By Aubierge Olivia HUNGBO KPLOCA* Since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) broke out in December 2019 in China, it has affected more than a million people and caused the death of thousands of people worldwide. The crisis caused by the virus, and the attendant measures to manage the ensuing crisis, have resulted in documented increases in violence against women and girls around the world, in the current global and local contexts where access to justice remains a challenge. One of the measures adopted by different governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is the restriction of movement of people to the strictest minimum through mandatory lockdowns. The lockdown has created a compulsory closeness between the abuser and the victim and therefore more women and children are at an increased risk of assault and other forms of violence. In China, according to Wan Fei, a former police officer who founded an association to fight domestic violence, 162 testimonies of domestic violence were recorded in February 2020, compared to 47 in February 2019 at the Jianli county police station in Hubei province. Based on the observation made and analysis of the testimonies collected during the writing of this article, the government of Benin has decreed a limitation of movements, the closure of bars and other places of pleasure, and a reduction of staff by some companies. The result has been increased levels of anxiety among many men across the country. These men have fewer and fewer financial resources and can no longer enjoy their evenings with friends around bottles of beer. Also, for those men who have extra marital relationships, the situation no longer allows them to meet their mistresses as they wish. This state of anger makes these men violent towards women and children. We interviewed a woman in her forties who is a trader in a market in Cotonou, Benin. She is a victim of domestic violence and has not yet decided to file a complaint against her husband. This abused woman requested anonymity, so her identity would be kept secret. She says: “My husband is most of the time at home, he was fired from work because the company he works for has laid off staff because of the coronavirus. For seven years, I have been the victim of my husband’s abuse, but now he is more and more nervous and beats me more regularly than before. The worst part is that my children are at home because of the coronavirus. They see everything.” – an anonymous victim. Many women victims of violence are faced with multiple difficulties when seeking justice. The health crisis due to the coronavirus has caused a slowdown in the functioning of institutions, and judiciaries and justice delivery have not been spared. Courts and tribunals’ operations are slowed down, and sometimes judicial activities are suspended. Furthermore, cultural norms make it difficult for a woman victim of domestic violence to denounce her husband. Therefore, fewer complaints are reported to the police or courts. Many women complain of violence, but very few accept to report cases of violence. Despite the efforts by the government to provide access to information on the pandemic, not all citizens have access to the internet or a cellphone, a majority of whom are women and children. Additionally, many women have been deprived of their income-generating activities. Women in the informal sector will have great difficulty resuming activities or will no longer be able to resume businesses since they have already used their capital to feed the family during the lockdown period. COVID-19 is definitely slowing down efforts to empower women, and governments should pay attention to the gender-related setbacks of this crisis. While there is an urgent need to handle the current volatile situation, governments should simultaneously plan for the immediate after-effects; if not, women and gender equality efforts will run the risk of facing a human (woman) crisis much worse than COVID-19. *Aubierge Olivia HUNGBO KPLOCA is the President of the Court of First Instance of Allada (Benin Republic). The views expressed in this post belong solely to the author.