I serve as the Senior Gender-Based Violence advisor on the USAID-funded Karabo ea Bhopelo (KB) Activity in Lesotho. Our mandate is to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Gender, and my role is to liaise with the Ministry of Gender, and make sure gender and gender-based violence are integrated into HIV programming. I also help ensure that the gender-based violence response referral mechanisms are functional and there is a coordinated response in place for survivors.

Gendered and Programmatic Challenges in the USAID KB Activity

COVID-19 has affected my work directly in the sense that we are not able to engage in person with people. One of our main activities under KB is to raise awareness among adolescent girls and young women to build their capacity and knowledge about the social and cultural issues that are root causes of gender-based violence. We are also not able to directly support the Ministry of Gender with capacity-strengthening efforts. Being unable to assist in these ways means we need to consider new approaches to achieve the mandate of this activity.

Because of the lockdown, we had to work from home and could no longer continue activities such as training our consortium partners’ staff. More than 300 KB project staff were supposed to be trained in gender-based violence prevention and response, but this had to be put on hold. The team is exploring alternatives, such as smaller training sessions where we can maintain social and physical distancing, or moving to virtual meetings and training. However, in Lesotho, it is generally easier to have participants in the room for this subject matter. The Ministry of Gender has its own challenges with working virtually. Many Ministry staff members do not have strong Internet connection, so they are cut off from communication once they are home. We our doing our best to work by phone, but it is a challenge that changes how we can deliver the planned technical support.

Although the lockdown has now been lifted, KB and our stakeholders are still partially working from home. It is not yet practical to go back to work as normal. Some of our stakeholders are also still restricted from being in public places, so a coordinated response is difficult. However, we hope to make use of the strides we have made thus far with virtual and other forms of communication. People are warming up to the idea of using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and social media platforms, so we hope we can take advantage of this as we move forward.

gender covid Lesotho - More than 300 KB project staff were supposed to be trained in gender-based violence prevention and response, but this had to be put on hold.

At the individual level, we might assume home is a safe place, but there are unintended consequences of being in a lockdown. Being in confined spaces, no longer able to leave the house can result in rising stress and tension within the family, which can lead to domestic violence. Bearing past studies in mind, such as those conducted during a drought we saw in 2016, we know that emergencies and disasters affect women disproportionately.

Reduced income is placing an additional strain on households. We have observed that a high number of sex workers (many of whom were forced into the profession) no longer work during the lockdown; this means lost income. Many women, especially young women, work in the informal sector with no income protection or legal recourse to help recover lost income when informal businesses closed during the lockdown. Women in the household also bear a greater burden during such a crisis, because they must tend to the increased domestic work associated with stay-at-home orders. They must prioritize caregiving for children who cannot go to school, help with schoolwork, and care for other sick family members in addition to their regular activities. Additionally, when women are out of work, they are unable to provide for their families. They cannot pay school fees for children, and this is likely to result in many girls dropping out of school and young girls being married off to bridge the economic gap COVID-19 created. We are also bracing for increased numbers of early pregnancy. This is problematic for several reasons, because people live far from clinics and already struggle to access sexual and reproductive health services and supplies. Travel restrictions and lack of transport options have made this even more challenging.

Meanwhile, men are under a lot of pressure because many of their businesses have been affected. We have seen men complaining they “are turning into women,” because they have to sit at home now. These frustrations can contribute to increased gender-based violence. At the community level, police have been more concerned with enforcing lockdown measures to protect people from COVID-19 than ensuring the safety of women and girls. The result is that some of our community protection structures have been weakened, placing girls and young women at higher risk of rape, abduction, and sex exploitation.

Envisioning Programming Opportunities and Realities in Post-Lockdown Lesotho

Things will not return to “normal” for a long time. In this context, the KB Activity is looking at ways to think differently about how to support gender-based violence prevention and response and integrate gender in HIV programming. We already know women tend bear the brunt in any crisis, and we saw a rise in reports of gender-based violence in countries that went into lockdown before Lesotho, so we wanted to move forward with prevention messaging before our cases began increasing.

To be proactive, we had to develop new ways of working. We found it best to use media platforms in place of meeting physically, and we have used radio messaging to convey gender-based violence prevention messages. The Ministry of Gender has seen a positive response and asked that messages also be disseminated via TV. We have used Facebook and SMS in our local language. We opted for SMS because more than 79 percent of people in Lesotho have mobile phones. While everyone might not have a smart phone, most women at least have control over a basic cell phone and can receive SMS messages. There has been a lot of feedback from people on this, with many saying they were not aware that service providers were still operating and gender-based violence response services were considered essential. In addition to these current efforts, we are working with the EnCompass Communications Team to create gender-based violence messaging visuals that can be disseminated in newspapers, via WhatsApp, and on social media platforms as well.

gender covid lesotho - a social media card from the KB activity about protecting oneself from violence.

This social media card reads: Be aware! you have a right to physical safety, no one has a right to hurt you.

KB has also established child and gender-based violence helplines, and is working on disseminating the toll-free numbers so members of the general public know which number to call if they feel they are in danger or need confidential support or counseling. We are ensuring social workers are well equipped to address gender-based violence by broadening their knowledge on how to serve as gender-based violence first responders. One of our health partners has staff working in the hospitals who are prepared to respond to calls from social workers working with gender-based violence survivors or those in need of services.

KB has cars on standby to mitigate the transport challenges many are facing during this crisis. If somebody needs assistance or transport to access a particular service, KB can coordinate the response. Overall, even if KB cannot directly provide services, we want to ensure we can link individuals with the right person or service provider.

Looking ahead, I see a need for virtual training and technologically advanced solutions, in addition to the steps we have already taken. We must learn from others who have already been using such solutions and coordinate with experts among our partners on best practices and ideas for new approaches to continue supporting Lesotho’s people, service providers, and policymakers to ensure an effective and lasting referral network for gender integration in HIV programming and gender-based violence prevention and response.

How Is Your Program Responding at the Country Level?

If you are working on COVID-19 responses related to gender integration or gender-based violence prevention and response at the country level, please share your stories by commenting below, tweeting @EnCompass_World, or adding a note on EnCompass’ LinkedIn page or Facebook page.

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