The lesser of two evils

In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a partial COVID-19 lockdown has increased domestic violence, but women are not turning to shelters.

Image credit Kate Holt for AusAID via Flickr CC.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and a state of emergency is declared, preexisting forms of domestic and intimate partner violence are being acutely exacerbated in Ethiopia. The high prevalence of domestic and intimate partner violence, and deeply entrenched patriarchal terror takes a toll on the physical and mental health of women and girls. This compounds the impacts of COVID-19, as women who are in need of physical or mental health services due to abuse, or who might have contracted the virus and need treatment, are reticent to go to hospitals as they face risks along the way, including being stopped and harassed by police due to heightened state surveillance related to the coronavirus.

Many of the Ethiopian women and girls who come to shelters, such as the Good Samaritan Association (GSA) and Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD), are returning from work abroad—particularly as domestic workers in the Gulf States. There was already a well-documented trend of abuse and human rights violations against migrant domestic workers in the Gulf States; due to COVID-19, the Saudi government repatriated 3,000 Ethiopians. The influx of returnees puts more pressure on the Ethiopian government’s efforts to tackle COVID-19, particularly as they come from countries with a higher number of cases. Returning Ethiopian workers must first go through a mandatory quarantine period; afterwards most of them are referred to shelters, such as GSA, because they report having suffered violence and sexual abuse. This, in turn, strains the capacity of the shelter providers, forcing them to take in more people than can be safely accommodated under physical distancing rules. Lack of adequate water supply, frequent power cuts, scarcity of protective items (especially masks), and the fear of running out of food remain common challenges. Bemnet, a former resident in one of the shelters, spoke to me of her overlapping challenges:

I stopped work, as a disabled person who fully depends on touch for mobility. I am terrified of going outside of the house. My livelihood is touch-based, when I hop on the taxi I bend and hold a grip on the floor for support because it is inaccessible. I give people my crutches while I do that, which also entails physical contact. I usually fall while I move around because people throw banana peels on the street. I am trapped, and walk in shame in the compound I live in because I am unable to pay rent … I need to survive this chaos for the sake of my offspring.

Former residents and returnees, who have been supporting themselves by engaging in small businesses, are disproportionately affected by the government’s lockdown measures. They live together in unhygienic and overcrowded spaces, often without an income; they struggle to pay rent, access health facilities, and to provide food for their children and themselves. Helen, a migrant returnee and single mother, recounts her struggles:

I used to leave my baby girl at the daycare when I go to work but now it is closed. I now leave her at one of the older ladies in the neighborhood, who sometimes give us food. Since the taxi fare has multiplied, I walk long distances back and to work. The carton recycling company I work for has gone bankrupt. I buy paper, magazines, and old exercise books from street children while enduring physical fighting with durye (vagabonds). Since the company has been hit hard and I don’t make enough money for rent and food, I wash people’s clothes. If you see my hands now, they are bruised from overwork. And it pains me deeply that my child is extremely suffering.

The Ethiopia Network of Women Shelters (ENWS) opened an emergency shelter in Addis Ababa on April 7, 2020 for those who are currently facing violence. However, they have only received 10 people, eight of them under 18 years of age. Although authorities have reported a spike in domestic violence, incidents remain under-reported because people are even more afraid to go to the police than usual for fear of exposure to the virus in crowded police stations. Also, neighbors often intervene as peace brokers, quashing any hope for legal accountability.

One of the major challenges that these shelters face during the pandemic is that they do not have the equipment to screen for COVID-19. Because of the need to minimize infections, new admissions have been halted. For most women living in violent circumstances, staying at home means staying with an abuser. Moreover, the closure of shelters, legal aid offices, training, schools, and other provisions is likely to be a death sentence for many. According to the Amhara Regional Women and Children Affairs Bureau, child marriage/rape has been increasing as a result of school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is an organization that had already been hit hard by the 2009 Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation, which placed draconian restrictions on rights-based organizations. Now according to Lensa Biyena, the director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), they have had to adjust their legal aid services as the courts were partially closed due to the pandemic, but reopened to prioritize gender-based violence cases. “There are four rape cases that we are following and 30-plus cases of single mother divorcees who came to us because of the discontinuation of child support. COVID-19 has adverse economic implications whereby children are going hungry and mothers unable to feed them,” said Biyena.

Though more women in Ethiopia may be suffering violence and oppression during the pandemic and the concurrent partial lockdown, they are not seeking shelter in numbers at the centers for women and girls around the country. They may be choosing long-term oppression and violence (and possibly death), rather than an immediate death from COVID-19. It is a horrific reality of choosing the lesser of two evils. The Ethiopian government must address the gender gaps that are proliferating as a result of the pandemic. Sexual assault prevention and response measures must be included in the government’s emergency package; 24-hour crisis hotlines, emergency shelter/transitional housing, and counseling, legal, and economic support are all central.

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