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COVID-19 Conversations: Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking in Malawi

A series of photos of women staring into the camera

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Each week, we are sharing insights from experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address the challenges. 

This week, we talk to our partner Caleb C. Ng’ombo, the Executive Director of People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), about how COVID-19 is putting women and girls in Malawi at greater risk of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Caleb was having to work without PPE, he was just using a scarf until his nephew made him a mask.

There are now over 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi and numbers are rising. What are some of the ways that local women and girls are being impacted?

A scarcity of medical, protective and testing equipment, alongside a lack of adequate health care facilities is fuelling the coronavirus crisis in Malawi and it is evidently clear from PSGR’s frontline work that women and girls are facing profound stress and panic.

Even in well-resourced nations, COVID-19 has strained or overwhelmed healthcare systems and in a low-income country like Malawi the virus has the potential to be devastating. A lot of the women and girls we work with are on the frontline of providing care to family members and those who are sick. This is mostly being done without Personal Protective Equipment. A further worry is that people do not have accurate information on how to safely handle those who are infected and there are a lot of myths and lies circulating about coronavirus.

How is the economic impact of COVID-19 putting women and girls at greater risk of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking?

Households are being pushed into financial crisis from loss of income due to travel restrictions and social distancing measures. Public transport costs have doubled and this has driven up the price of goods and services. This has dealt a huge blow to small scale business women who survive on daily wages. Many have told us their businesses have collapsed and this loss of income has left them in urgent need of financial assistance to support them and their families.

Hunger and acute malnutrition is increasing. Many face being evicted from their home as they cannot afford to pay rent, water and electricity bills. All this is putting vulnerable women and girls at greater risk of coercion, commercial sexual exploitation, and pregnancy from transactional sex in exchange for survival basics like food, clean water, and sanitary products.

Schools have been closed to limit the spread of the virus. This means that children are spending more time online with limited supervision from parents and guardians and we are concerned about young people being targeted by sexual predators. We have also experienced a surge in the numbers of children attempting to earn money by selling water, sweets and other items on the streets and at transport hubs, where they are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Find out more about Equality Now’s work to end sex trafficking here..

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