How to address increased gender based violence during lockdown through helplines

Written by Sybil Nkeiruka Nmezi, Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network (GIWYN), Nigeria

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your project highlighted these learnings.

Our usual work includes face-to-face support for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), including counselling, referral and accompaniment to protective institutions, follow up, transport and phone airtime, child support and shelter where appropriate. With the lockdown much of this was impossible, while the abrupt adjustments everyone had to make were exposing women to GBV with limited or no support. We were able to redirect our reproductive health and safe abortion information hotline (Ms Rosy) and expand its priorities to address GBV.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

During lockdown we handled more hotline calls and saw much more GBV.  Of all women callers, 75% shared some experience of GBV, including: marital rape, sexual assault, lack of money for essentials, lack of privacy, threats of harassment from police and criminals. Calls specifically about GBV nearly tripled, from 765 per month (March 2020) to 2,265 per month (April 2020). The closure of our face-to-face GBV counselling/referral centre cannot account for this increase alone, as visits there averaged just 120 per month. Most callers belong to vulnerable groups and are informal workers dependent on daily income.

How those challenges were tackled – what was achieved?  

We redirected the hotline to nearby staff (adding more from GBV department), expanded priorities for COVID-19 challenges and trained them on GBV documentation, reporting, counselling and referrals – both online and in person. We use official information from the WHO and our standard hotline protocols, assuring quality through data collection and regular manager observations and sample checks. 

Our hotline staff offer:

  • free counselling and information
  • linking and follow-up with pharmacies and health centres for contraception and medical abortion
  • information about food and money distribution centres
  • access to face masks and sanitisers for those without funds.

The hotline uses the principles of empowerment and reinforcing autonomy, enabling the client to make her own decisions about whether to be called back, and what time is best for her, as she may have privacy and security concerns about accessing the hotline.

Prior to the pandemic, we promoted the hotline mainly through community outreach, in training sessions, when making referrals, through posters, leaflets and in other forums. During the lockdown this was impossible so we took to social media, promoting the hotline through channels including Facebook, Twitter, our website, bulk SMSs targeting local populations, and other online publications. The ease of readers’ sharing posts means the message could be spread further than through traditional methods.  Through Facebook alone the hotline reached 315,530 visitors.

Would you like to tell us more about the challenges you saw advocates facing in this situation?

  • We have strengthened our GBV unit now by mobilising more staff, creating awareness and providing more training in response measures.
  • Partners have resorted to webinars and virtual events, with more expenses in the area of internet costs and power backup.
  • The increased burdens of home care have a psychological effect on our advocates, including our partners. As a result, GIWYN is considering incorporating mental health into our work.
  • The lockdown often prevents our referral partners from being able to render timely support to GBV survivors; for example, a partner reports a woman who was shot by criminals but could not be rushed to the hospital immediately.
  • Another partner saw a woman shouting; “Na me cause covid? Na me cause covid? I no go do again.” (“Am I the cause of Covid 19? Am I the cause of Covid 19? I am not interested in sex again.”) The woman’s husband had been harassing her for sex consistently during lockdown.
  • If the lockdown continues, there is the fear that pharmacies and shops may run out of life-saving products.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

A quick response to risks by shifting priorities is vital to reducing GBV. It is necessary to make adequate contingency plans for unforeseen occurrences such as coronavirus disease in the future. The hotline strategy is a practical community intervention that empowers women with information. Documentation and data collection are important strategies to address GBV. Social media and online meeting platforms are important tools for work from home during lockdown. We are documenting GBV stories to use for evidence-based advocacy.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Ensure hotline information is from an official source, and regularly sample calls to ensure quality is maintained.
  • Support the caller’s needs and decisions about their circumstances and how best to receive support.
  • Collaboration and movement building are important in dealing with GBV during times of restricted movement or health crisis in future.
  • Policy, traditional and religious leaders should prioritise women’s rights using a feminist and human rights approach.
  • Set up long-term working groups to monitor the ongoing preventive measures in emergencies to ensure women’s rights are incorporated into such policies using feminist approaches.

Do you have any photos or documents that would help or inspire another organisation or group facing the same problems? 

GIWYN: Stay safe and protected while staying at home under lockdown on Facebook.

Did advocates use any external resources to help this solve this issue that you would recommend to other organisations? 

Sources of the extra training we provided staff are:

  • Online training on GBV Response on the UN Women Training Centre portal
  • Ibis Reproductive Health Team
  • Women Help Women
  • International Women’s Health Coalition Fund (IWHC)

Sybil Nkeiruka Nmezi, Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network (GIWYN), Nigeria

Sybil Nmezi is a courageous and steadfast advocate and activist for gender equality in Nigeria. She is the executive director of Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network (GIWYN). For the past eighteen years, she has been raising funds for the organisation to implement practical community interventions in defence of women’s human rights and focusing on increased access to broad sexual reproductive health and reproductive rights (SRHR) for women and girls. These activities include workshops, training of trainers, campaigns, information hotline activities and advocacy.

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