Through 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic led to prolonged school closures in Uganda. These closures exacerbated sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against girls. Lockdowns isolated some girls in close proximity to perpetrators within homes and neighbourhoods, and left them unable to access help. Moreover, financial burdens have increased the pressure on girls to work in locations where the risk of SGBV is high. Cultural and social norms play their part, including through child marriage. Victim blaming and stigmatisation are ubiquitous, and perpetrators rarely face justice.
Why is it important?
The increase in SGBV exposes the weaknesses of protective laws and institutions in Uganda. Apart from the suffering and the health risks, both mental and physical, this type of violence has long-term negative consequences for the victims and is socially detrimental. SGBV undermines the ability of girls to return to school and complete their education. Lack of education reduces the capacity of women to earn a living, to act as community leaders, or to participate in political life, all of which have a negative impact on society and the economy.
What should be done and by whom?
In the short term, while the pandemic and its economic aftermath continue, safeguarding is key. We recommend that policymakers enhance reporting and follow-up services, and engage with community structures when implementing safeguarding programmes. In the longer term, girls need to be both protected and to be empowered to take control of their own sexual and reproductive health. For community leaders and for policymakers in the government, and for donor organisations and businesses, we recommend a suite of measures to safeguard girls and to start addressing social norms and cultural values that perpetuate SGBV, ranging from smartphone apps to the potential of corporate social responsibility.