Covid 19 pounced upon us bringing fear and anxiety for the health and safety of people throughout the world. The harsh consequence of Covid 19 came to us in South Africa at the end of March with the lockdown which came with many more challenges for women in our society.

Access to justice for women has largely been interpreted as access to the courts or even access to law enforcement agencies. However, access to justice has a far wider meaning and relates to rights of women and social change. It talks to empowerment and respect for women. It’s about dealing with the oppression of women in society. It’s also about the women’s ability to safely, promptly and efficiently access justice.

From the initial phases of the pandemic, the main message was sanitisation of hands with soap and water and social distancing. This proved to be a great challenge for communities who do not have access to water and who use communal toilet facilities. And so, Covid 19 began to highlight the shortcomings in society. It exposed the large number of people who are without access to water and especially the challenge for the women who are responsible for collecting water. The safety of women using communal sanitation facilities was also highlighted.

The lockdown also meant that many women who are victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence were locked in their homes with the perpetrators for extended periods of time. The normal relief that these women felt when their perpetrators left for work or other activities disappeared. One can only imagine the anxiety and trauma these women experienced. In addition, the ban on cigarettes and alcohol could have aggravated the circumstances as many men would have suffered withdrawal symptoms which could have meant a violent outcome. On the other hand, the Minister of Police reported an increase in the cases of abuse of women once the alcohol ban was lifted.

A further challenge women faced as victims of abuse is that the Courts and the law enforcement agencies were closed or intermittently open during lockdown. Access to the courts and the police had new challenges with online processes and with capacity constraints at the Courts and police stations. The ongoing lack of sensitivity to cases of abuse on the part of many police personnel further contributes to the issue. On 18 June 2020, the President of South Africa addressed the nation after a spate of killings of women and children and said- “At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension. These rapists and killers walk among us. They are in our communities. They are our fathers, our brothers, our sons and our friends; violent men with utterly no regard for the sanctity of human life.”

This is the sad state of affairs in South Africa-a country whose Constitution and Bill of Rights sets out women’s rights to dignity, freedom, security and equality. We all have a role to play in ensuring access to justice for women. What has been made harsher for women by Covid 19 has always been there. The fight against gender based violence has to be escalated by Government, law enforcement agencies, men, women and society generally.

As the negative economic impact of Covid has started to show its ugly head, the road ahead will be even more difficult for many women. We can only hope and pray that women can find peace within to deal with their circumstances and to claim their rights to dignity, freedom, security and equality!

Article written by Mrs Nalini Gengan

Chairperson of the Hindu Assoc of Western Cape

Vice Chairperson of the Siva Alayam