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  • Care Research Project

Covid-19, Lockdowns, Sexual-Violence, and Unanticipated Consequences.

History is littered with unintended consequences. The so-called Streisand Effect, named after Barbara Streisand’s attempt to remove a photo of her house from the public record on the grounds of invasion of privacy led to vast interest in a previously obscure image. Likewise, while evacuation of the residents of Fukushima following the Tsunami and damage to the nuclear power station was clearly well-intended the consequent psychological damage has proven to be far more dangerous than the radiation would have been.

Unfortunately, this is also true of lockdowns. Whilst lockdowns have been contentious everywhere, as governments have tried to balance their citizens’ livelihoods and freedoms with controlling the virus, policymakers in the Global South faced particularly difficult decisions. Limited resources and state-capacity meant Southern governments were unable to provide income replacement and support for firms in the same way as their Northern equivalents. They have had to balance the risks from hunger and extreme poverty induced by a lockdown with the risks posed by Covid-19.

While such hunger and poverty are an anticipated consequence of a lockdown, the evidence suggests that lockdowns also impact on sexual predators’ behaviour and thus the risks faced by women and girls. Oriana Bandiera and co-authors study the impact of lockdowns due to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. They report evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial that in villages disrupted by Ebola younger girls spent more time with men, were more likely to have unprotected sex, and that there were consequently more pregnancies. However, in similarly affected villages where a safe-space was provided girls spend less time with men and there were consequently fewer pregnancies.

However, in these villages the reduced availability of younger girls, aged 12-17 led to an increase in transactional sex amongst women 18-25. Moreover, and most troublingly it led to a 5 percentage point or 34% increase in the rate of unwanted sex. Thus, while the provision of safe spaces that Bandiera et al (2019) study served to reduce the frequency of sex, unprotected sex, and pregnancy among girls, it was simultaneously associated with greater harm to young women.

Flowe et al. (2020) analyse data collected during the Covid-19 lockdown in Kenya. These data suggest a reduction in the median age of child rape survivors from 16 to 12. There is also a shift from attacks taking place outside the home, to at the homes of family friends or relatives. Indeed, the data suggest that it is often girls using the phone of a neighbour or family friend to complete their schoolwork who are at particular risk. Thus, when schools are shut due to a lockdown but parents continue to have to work children are exposed to a substantially heightened risk of sexual violence.

This highlights just how difficult designing effective policy to protect women and girls is. It is also evidence that perpetrators’ behaviour responds, and thus that making one group safer may impact the risk faced by others. This is in no way a claim that any policy is inherently ineffective, but rather highlights the first-order importance of asking what the impact of any policy will be on the access of women and girls to safe spaces.

“Bandiera, Oriana; Buehren, Niklas; Goldstein, Markus; Rasul, Imran; Smurra, Andrea. 2018. The Economic Lives of Young Women in the Time of Ebola : Lessons from an Empowerment Program. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”

Flowe, H. D., Rockowitz, S., Rockey, J., Kanja, W., KAMAU, C., Colloff, M. F., … Davies, K. (2020, July 27). Sexual and Other Forms of Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency in Kenya.


Dr. James Rockey

Associate Professor in Economics at University of Birmingham

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