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Could COVID-19 be an amplifier of sexual violence against female university students?

By Rita Aligo

Added 13th October 2020 11:03 AM

University students in particular constitute a group which is most vulnerable to sexual violence

University students in particular constitute a group which is most vulnerable to sexual violence

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed primarily as a global health crisis having infected millions of people worldwide and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the process, we are only beginning to understand how this pandemic will deeply impact our country economically, politically, culturally and socially—and how those far-ranging impacts are dependent on the multitude of identities, situations and communities that make up our country.

For example, we are seeing with horror the plight of health professionals' i.e. nurses, doctors and other frontline workers who have in many instances been forced to work without sufficient protective gear. To this end, there have been numerous reports of health practitioners getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. There has also been a surge in youth unemployment particularly amongst the low-income earners in the informal sector i.e. boda bodas, market vendors, taxi drivers and taxi touts struggling to make ends meet and the numbers of unemployed youth surging. The recent spate of killings and murder of women and girls, particularly by their intimate partners, relatives and strangers reflects the deep-seated levels of vulnerabilities, inequalities as well as the lack of protection mechanisms against violence. This is further exacerbated by the lack of access to criminal justice by the survivors of violence in their respective communities. On May 31st 2020, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics had noted that, as per the report of the Uganda Police Force, the number of deaths and abuses due to domestic violence recorded during the months of March and April 2020 respectively, had increased by 62% compared to the same period last year.

Since March 18th 2020, all education institutions have been closed as part of the Government's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. As of now, schools and universities are not expected to reopen for the unforeseeable future, save only to enable candidates and finalists to sit for their final examinations. In Uganda; the parents, government, development partners and non-government organizations have invested for decades to make education accessible for millions of poverty-stricken children, ensuring maximum girls' enrolment in schools. In turn, we have therefore seen a surge in the enrolment of girls in universities across the country on private sponsorship schemes funded by their parents. However, the lockdown may force students coming from daily-wage earning families to drop out due to financial problems. Girls are likely to be the first to drop out, subsequently leading to increases in early marriages prior to finishing school in addition to other negative and gender coping mechanisms. Anecdotal evidence shows that in crisis settings, girls live in fear of violence and related existential threats on their survival; thus, alluding to gender-based violence (GBV) within families.

Reports indicate that cases of sexual, gender-based and domestic violence have increased significantly since the country began its response to the virus. Moreover, a recent report by the New Vision newspaper has stated that between the month of March 30, 2020 and April 28, 2020, there was an estimated 3,280 cases of gender-based violence reported across the country.   Women are being targeted for violence both in rural and urban settings. We are seeing the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having especially on the young women, many of whom have been murdered, killed and injured, especially by their intimate partners. Disparities in relation to access to food, failure to pay rental arrears, healthcare especially in regards to family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services and commodities, including those related to menstrual health are central to women and girls' health, empowerment and dignity. 

University students in particular constitute a group which is most vulnerable to sexual violence and most likely to face the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the government response efforts have largely been focused on containing the disease and distributing food rations to the urban poor, protocols were never established to target and protect girls and women from violence during the outbreak.

Quarantines, school and university closures were put in place to contain the spread of disease. This however left women and adolescent girls, particularly the university female students vulnerable to coercion, exploitation and sexual abuse. In many instances prior to COVID-19, the media was awash with reports of students who had experienced sexual assault of some form by their peers and lecturers. The incidences of sexual assault against female students are likely to become more apparent and further exacerbated by this pandemic. Reported cases of sexual harassment in universities pre-covid 19 particularly at Uganda's oldest University- Makerere University, gave us a peak into the levels of vulnerabilities as well as the unprecedented challenges likely to be experienced by female students' post COVID-19. 

Some of the past cases reported include that of a female student who accused a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration in the School of Social Sciences of sexually harassing her on 26th February 2018. In July 2017, Brian Musaga, a lecturer in the School of Statistics and Planning while in charge of examinations was also accused by six female students of sexually harassing and assaulting them resulting in his suspension by the university. In April 2018, it was also reported that Edward Kisuze, an officer in the Academic Registrar's Department, was arrested after he allegedly abused a former female student while she was seeking certification of her academic documents.

Another media report also exposed lecturers who demand for sex in exchange for favours from female students at Makerere University (The Independent, 2019). Although Makerere University has a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual harassment, there have been several cases of sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the past months. 

In 2019, Parliament of Uganda resolved to set up a select committee to investigate the widespread cases of sexual harassment in educational institutions in the country. The move followed a motion moved by Anna Adeke (2019) praying that Parliament investigates the media allegations of sexual harassment and violence in schools and institutions of higher learning. 

The Committee Report (Office of the Clerk to Parliament, 2019) of Parliament found out that sexual violence was widespread in virtually all the institutions of learning they had visited.  It should however be noted, that the actual prevalence of the vice in the country is difficult to ascertain as many of the cases are never reported. Forty percent of the respondents interviewed said that they had personally experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment or knew of classmates and peers who had experienced it.

This inherent vulnerability is likely to exacerbate the existing gender inequalities, raising the question of how students are being affected by the current lock down. University facilities have been closed for several weeks leaving many students with no alternative other than to spend most of their time in their student rented hostels which are usually shared with multiple other students. Does being exposed to one's hostel mates the majority of the time, make students especially the vulnerable ones prone to sexual offences? How does the general stress caused by the pandemic play into that? Which effect do collapsing social networks (due to the social distancing measures) have on this issue? Though we do not know the answers to these questions yet, we do know that all these aspects are potential risk factors which could trigger and make students even more vulnerable to sexual violence in times of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many universities have not addressed themselves nor given any updates to their students and the entire university communities on the likely impact of COVID-19, especially on how best to handle unprecedented challenges that are likely to expose their students to sexual assault and other gender-based violence issues. Creating safe environments and mitigating the potential risk of sexual assault can only be achieved by addressing inherent gender inequality and discrimination in these institutions of learning.

While the scourge of sexual assault is receiving much more attention nationally, preventing sexual abuse through addressing the core protection concerns of female students is critical, more so ensuring possible referral mechanisms that are in place for survivors. Information on the availability of as well as access to all protective services for women and girls must be availed to every student during any disaster. Domestic violence hotlines, safe spaces, sexual and reproductive health services, referral pathways, and justice mechanisms are necessary in pre-pandemic times, and even more important in crisis. Given that universities closed unexpectedly, many students were likely to have been forced to stay in their hostels which are paid up by their parents or guardians. Uncertain and unsure of how long the lock down and closure of universities would persist, such unprecedented challenges are likely to create a situation that is most likely to drive the poor, vulnerable female students to resort to survival strategies including; engaging in unwanted relationships leading to pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections as well as psycho social trauma and depression that could eventually lead to death and suicides etc.

The consequences and the reduction of sexual violence:   

There are a number of consequences associated with the lockdown and restricted movement, including sexual assault which is potentially very serious. An immediate concern is physical injury, which may be extensive enough to require medical treatment or hospitalization. Pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV, are additional concerns. Emotional damage may be serious and equally requiring treatment. Sexual assault may affect students' academic achievement as well as their capacity to contribute to the campus community. College students who have survived sexual assault rarely perform at their prior academic levels, are sometimes unable to carry a normal course load, and frequently miss classes. These changes stem sometimes from social withdrawal, sometimes from a desire to avoid the perpetrator. Assaulted students regularly drop courses altogether, leave school, or transfer. Along with a decline in academic performance and social withdrawal, long-term outcomes may include increased risk of depression, substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, personality disorders, and suicide.

Sexual violence experienced by students can have detrimental consequences for the victim, possibly resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), strong feelings of shame and guilt, depression, and substance abuse.  

It has also been shown that this possible deterioration of the victim's mental health can have detrimental effects on academic performance in university students. This, coupled with the high vulnerability of university students and increased risk factors in times of social distancing, calls for an urgent intervention by the university to both protect and support their students. Three pillars should be addressed in order to tackle the issue of sexual violence: prevention, reporting, and support of victim-survivors.

Moreover, beyond their destructive effects on individuals, incidents of sexual assault may also have negative conse­quences for colleges and universities. In the first instance, these incidents may harm the institution's educational mission by undermining the safe and hospitable learning environment neces­sary for learning and teaching. Secondly, they cast doubt on stated commitments by campus leaders to end campus violence. Thirdly, cases exposed in the national media may bring scandal to the institution and its leaders, creating distrust towards the administra­tion among parents and alumni which would subsequently erode fundraising efforts as well as legislative and philanthropic support. Fourthly, institutions found in violation of basic preventive measures may be fined. Finally, even incidents that stay local are likely to damage the institution's standing in the community.

How can universities and the Government address the plight of female disadvantaged university students in the midst of Covid-19?

  1. There is a need by the university communities to support survivors, including operationalising the support groups as a community-based approach. In terms of support, the university communities should put mechanisms in order to support students, especially in times of Covid-19. For instance, student psychologists/counselors provide counseling especially tailored for study related problems and online support groups to provide support and community building in times of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the topic of sexual violence needs special attention because survivors are often traumatized and suffer from stigmatization. One way to offer support for survivors are support groups which offer safe spaces in which participants can speak openly about their experience under supervision of licensed psychologists/counselors. This contributes to the individual healing process and it creates an opportunity for building a community in which the topic of sexual violence is de-stigmatized and in which survivors can support each other by sharing both struggles and coping mechanisms.

There is a specific need for universities to provide mental health and psychosocial support as well as counselling services for students, given the unprecedented impact that COVID-19 might pose on struggling students, especially those whose parents are struggling to get their tuition as well as those on self-sponsoring or studying part time. There is need to manage the physiological needs, mental health and psychosocial support and counselling needs of the students traumatised by COVID-19.

  1. Given the severe financial impact that COVID-19 has caused, universities should also consider reassessing and rescheduling the payment of tuition fees by students particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised students. This would reduce the financial burden on poor students who are already constrained with the lack of basic amenities.
  2. Universities ought to cater for the sexual and reproductive health needs of the poor students, including the provision of family planning as well as menstrual hygiene services. These can be provided by the university in partnership with the private sector and all other well- wishers.
  3. Universities should also consider creating a clear consistent food network within their institutions to cater for vulnerable and marginalised students. This would alleviate poverty, thus reducing the vulnerability of some of the female impoverished university students. 

Having explored the above issues on the impact of COVID-19 on female disadvantaged university students, it is my hope that universities and higher institutions of learning are challenged to dig deeper into the salient issues that concern female disadvantaged students. It is imperative for universities and higher institutions of learning to maintain a protective education environment at all costs. It is time for universities to delve deeper into the psycho-social issues surrounding female students particularly during the COVID-19 period. How vulnerable are some female students who were living within the university precincts during the lockdown and therefore had no clear way of taking care of their basic needs?  How best can universities address issues of menstrual hygiene and the sexual reproductive needs of its female student body who have been largely affected by the pandemic and how best can universities participate in ensuring that the study environment is a safe and suitable environment for female vulnerable students?

Moreover, it is also imperative for universities and higher institutions of learning to take cognizance of the emotional and psychological state of female students even as they return back to institutions of higher learning. During the pandemic, many Ugandans either lost their respective sources of income or had their incomes drastically reduced due to the sluggish economic growth. 

The pandemic is therefore an opportunity for institutions of learning and universities to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate their policies in terms of ensuring holistic student welfare in lieu of the lockdown taking into consideration the vulnerable female disadvantaged students, thus providing for gender parity in the process.  

The writer is a lawyer, researcher and a senior programme associate.

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