How women bore the brunt of Covid-19 including abuse during lockdown

Women in informal sector struggled for necessary during the pandemic. The government, a new report says, did little to rescue women. [iStockphoto]

When the government imposed movement restrictions during Covid-19, requiring people not to leave select counties or even their houses at night, many people in need of crucial services, such as medical care, could not access them.

Increased transportation costs and curfew imposition led to sex offenders, alongside other perpetrators of gender-based violence (GBV), often escaping punishment.

Enforcers of justice were hard to reach, and for some victims, priorities had changed. Struggling to eke out a living, feeding families and caregiving took precedence. Social stigma also prevented many women from reporting sexual harassment cases.

The women, especially in urban informal sector, also found it difficult to access sexual reproductive health (SRH) services, a report by International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), which spoke to 384 informal-sector women workers (IWWs) in Nairobi, showed.

Sexual violence

The pandemic also took away their working hours, for those who had not lost their jobs, as they had to take on excess responsibilities of care. There was little help in household chores, mostly due to stereotypes that assign such chores to women.

Movement restrictions meant people spent a lot of time indoors, and those who went out barely found work. This led to an increase in torture of women as men took out their frustrations on their partners. 

“Their husbands were coming home with no money yet there are costs to pay. This could lead to misunderstandings between spouses, leading to domestic violence. That was the main cause of gender-based violence,” said a GBV service provider and hotline coordinator interviewed by ICRW, which considered IWWs in Dagoretti South, Embakasi East, Embakasi West, Kamukunji, Kibera, Starehe and Westlands in Nairobi.

Worryingly, few women reported sexual violence cases, which they suffered at work and home. The study associated this to “social stigma around discussing sexual violence”.

Of the respondents, 82 per cent experienced emotional torture at home and 64 per cent at work. 57 percent encountered physical violence at home and 59 per cent at work. These IWWs were more likely to face sexual harassment at work than at home- 17 percent and 14 percent respectively.

Unlike in conventional times, not enough was done to curb this trend. Prevailing conditions - including dusk to dawn curfews which led to restriction in movement - frustrated efforts to apprehend and punish offenders.

“For women, they could report to nyumba kumi heads [local leaders] or CHVs [community health volunteers] and the cases were handled at that level,” a village elder from Eastleigh said.

As courts struggled to convene to hear cases, a lot of perpetrators of sexual abuse escaped prosecution, with authorities at lower cadres hearing and settling cases, in effect denying justice to the offenders.

“During normal times, we arrest perpetrators and take them to court… but due to Covid, many cases stopped at police or [were] handled in the community…people could not move easily,” a GBV desk officer at Shauri Moyo Police Station told ICRW.

Corresponding studies reveal that women and children were in their most unsafe spell, with defenceless minors targeted even by most trusted caretakers.

A 2021 BMJ Open study that interviewed 317 adults and 224 children in Kenya also showed sexual abuse was prevalent around the pandemic, but varied greatly between children and adult victims.

Bivariate analyses found that children were more likely than adults to be attacked during daytime (59% vs 44%) by a single perpetrator rather than multiple perpetrators (31 per cent vs 13 per cent) in a private as opposed to a public location (66 per cent vs 45 per cent) and by someone known to the child (76 per cent vs 58 per cent), noted the study. Children were violated most often by neighbours (29 per cent) and family members (20 per cent), whereas adults were equally likely to be attacked by strangers (41 per cent) and persons known to them (59 per cent).

The report called for “age-related measures” to tackle the violence.

Patterns of sexual violence against adult and child survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic are different, suggesting age-related measures are needed in national emergency plans to adequately address sexual violence during the pandemic and for future humanitarian crises,” it said.

The ICRW study further found that almost 1 in every 10 (7 per cent) of IWWs in food and business sectors experienced sexual exploitation in exchange for a service, with an average 17 per cent of women interviewed experiencing sexual harassment. Yet few of these sought help. For those that did, few received it.


Human Rights Watch blamed the government for staying mum and being non-committal as successive studies showed widespread, and rapidly increasing, SGBV (sexual and gender based violence) cases.

“One hotline for those seeking help on gender-based violence saw a 300 percent increase in reports over the previous year. Except for a perfunctory presidential address, the government did little practical to address this violence. Human Rights Watch research found that government inaction meant that survivors missed out on timely and critical access to medical treatment, including post-rape care, psychological care and protection services, and needed social and financial assistance,” it noted.

A 2020 National Police Service report showed that in just the first six months of the year, more GBV cases had been reported than throughout each of the previous two years.

Between January and June 2020, a whopping 2,032 cases were reported, a bulk of those assault cases. In contrast, 1,974 cases were reported in the entirety of 2018 and 1,057 in 2019.

And the report indicated that even here, there was underreporting.

“The reported GBV cases (known to police), cumulatively stand at 5,063, showing a tiny proportion of the survivors who choose to go to police as the legally mandated institution. Studies have indicated that the top reasons for not reporting most of the crimes and violations to the police are fear of revenge/further violence, embarrassment/shame, or the incident being too trivial/unimportant, time/cost involved, emotionally draining to victims and police either do not understand or are not proactive in handling the complaint(s),” The National Crime Research Centre noted.

ICRW found that accessing SRH services at health facilities during the Covid-19 lockdown was also made difficult by, alongside movement restrictions, the high cost of transport, and some service points being temporarily closed.

The SRH services that were examined in the study included contraception and family planning, and antenatal, delivery, and postnatal care. They also included management of abortion complications, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and GBV-related care such as clinical management of rape survivors and intimate partner violence.

However, some women accessed GBV services through structures established within their localities, the only avenue available.

Women experienced difficulties accessing SRH and GBV services at a time when restrictions to movements were enforced, and in a period where need for these services had increased, and ICRW says the Ministry of Health should classify these services “as essential and remove any restriction or regulations that prevent pharmacies from providing SRH and GBV services; and should introduce telemedicine programs, apply task sharing of SRH services as guided by World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, and strengthen reproductive health commodities supply chain”.

This would mean women unable to access these facilities because of curfews, lockdowns and cost are, in future, not prevented from crucial sexual reproductive health care and are able to report GBV cases with assured, appropriate action taken. Equally, perpetrators of sexual violence can be quickly held responsible.  

“Another way to improve IWWs’ access to SRH and GBV services is by mapping needs and using mobile outreach teams to supply service delivery sites or go door-to-door,” the ICRW report says.

ICRW also says the Ministry of Health should make the provision of these crucial services possible even in a crisis in the context of a pandemic, employ multi-stakeholder approaches to prioritise plans for safe provision of SRH and GBV services.

“Consider comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual education to reduce instances of teenage pregnancy and increase knowledge on sexual reproductive rights,” it says.

Training of local personnel who can be called upon when SRH and GBV services are needed to ensure at every one time, such women in need can receive attention.

“The Ministry of Health and county governments should work with CSOs to develop innovative ways to increase IWWs’ access to support, such as training community health workers to provide basic SRH and GBV services in markets and other informal workplaces,” the report adds.