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Gender-based violence, rape and femicide of women, girls and infants has remained disproportionately and alarmingly high in Southern Africa and other part of the world, despite the lockdown regulations to prevent the spread of COVID19-pandemic. COVID 19 has revealed the persistence of the scourge and reality of the unknown cause of this impunity befallen the women, girls and infants in Southern Africa. The unfavourable economic situations exacerbate most women and children to stay trapped with their perpetrators, who are the people they have intimate relationship with. These are mainly matrimonial partners, fathers, boyfriends and neighbours that take advantage of their vulnerable situations making it hard for them to escape emotionally and physically violent relationships. Women use range of means guaranteed in the constitution and civic platforms to express their frustration in protests, assemblies, advocacy in parliament, before the President, against law enforcement. Attempts have also been made to advocate for implementation of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa for ending gender based violence, freedom of association, assembly, expression, right to peace and association. But their situation has not changed and continue to live in fear and risk of impunity of gender-based violence and femicide.

We documented traumatising cases which need tackling comprehensively to determine the root course of the brutal gender-based violence in Southern Africa.

•The gruesome killing of Tshegofatso Pule, 28 years old and 8 months’ pregnant woman residing in Meadowlands, Johannesburg. Her body was found murdered with multiple stab wounds on her chest and hanged on a tree at field in Roodepoort, West Rand of Johannesburg.
•Amahle Quku, a 17-year-old girl residing in Philippi, Cape Town her body was found lying in Albert Luthuli Street in Brown Farm, Cape Town. Her clothes were ripped off and stones laid next to her half naked body. The family only found out about her death on social media. Images of her body were circulated on Facebook. Leonard Mzingeli has been charged with her murder and was expected to be back in court on July 7, 2020.
•We were also shocked at a report of a newly admitted undergraduate at the University of Benin, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa was at Redeemed Christian Church reading her books when she was raped and killed, she was smashed in the head with a fire extinguisher.

Women continue playing remarkable monitoring roles as individuals, organizations, groups and networks in assisting the government to prevent the spread of COVID19. Their work has expanded over four months of curbing coronavirus to include in their strategy plans, psychosocial programs, call centers, health shelters, humanitarian aid, working from distance and pro-activeness in using online platforms for wide reach-outs. The intimidation and harassment have continued constraining them from rendering effective services during this challenging period, especially by cybercrime suspects, home break-ins and robberies. There’s also a great need for innovative strategies to assist them in mobilizing resources to enable them to perform their work under the new norm. They are also frustrated in the reluctance of states to recognize them as essential service providers and providing them with appropriate budgets for their work.

We call upon the African Commission to urge Member States to do the following
•Take gender-based violence, rape, sexual violence, femicide very seriously.
•Allocate adequate resources for effective implementation of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa
•Implement National Strategic Plan to combat domestic violence in the context of and post COVID-19 in South Africa.
•Ensure a well-trained police service, skilled medical professionals, dedicated frontline workers and judiciary that has zero tolerance for gender-based violence
•Ensure increased efforts for awareness-raising in the society and forging of partnerships with private sector to combat GBV/Femicide, including investing more in setting up facilities to support GBV survivors.
•Recognise civil society rendering protective services for women and girls as “essential” service providers during any disaster.
•Continue working with CSOs dealing with gender-based violence and provide them with appropriate tools and enough finance to sustain their work to restore human dignity of women, mothers, the elderly, sisters, girls and infants facing violence. during this unprecedented crisis.
•Create a just and safe society based on human rights, human dignity, equality and accountability.
•Find innovative ways of creating job opportunities for women to improve their socio-economic situation. This will work towards ending the dependence most have on their male partners.

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The duty of the state to promote and protect life is safeguarded in the African Charter on Human and People’s Right (Art 4 & 16 (2) of the African Charter). This right is enshrined as non derogable in most national constitutions of our region, including not to subject anyone to torture, inhumane and degrading treatment. However, the past 113 days of curbing COVID19 have shown inordinate disregard of states obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. It has raised grave concern in deployment of excessively armed military to assist maintain law and order, especially in enforcing COVID19 regulations. This is mainly visibility in marginalized and undeveloped communities which the states have duty to ensure enjoyment of this right as stipulated under Article 22 (1) & (2) of the African Charter. COVID19 measures aggravates livelihoods of vulnerable communities experiencing overcrowding, no safe water, sanitation and need food or means to procure. ACHPR /Res 347 (LX) 2017 recalls right to food as inherent right in the African Charter with freedom from hunger in times of natural and other disasters

COVID19 present an opportunity to invoke AU values of solidarity, unity and compassion to help the needy and vulnerable communities survive the pandemic. They await the long overdue delivery of land as they live in health risk environments and densely populated areas, which conflict with measures to prevent COVID 19 pandemic. In the post colonization and era of liberated African continent, it is heartening that most people occupy lands which are not surveyed or developed with infrastructure for housing and title deeds. Their right to express their views about the ongoing exploitation of natural resources is met with reprisals which breach provisions of the African Charter (Article 21 (5)). It is these cries of citizens, dissents, associations and opposition that seek a platform with leaders to be part of a solution in combating COVID 19 rather than be seen as a problem.

It is these unbearable circumstances lead people to the streets to protests, notwithstanding confrontation of brutal law enforcement and for that matter using lethal weapons for maintaining law and order. This violent situation has resulted in grave injuries, tragic deaths and unnecessary arbitrary arrests, torture, abductions, intimidation, harassment conducted under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID19.

As the AU dedicated the Year 2020 to Silencing of the Guns, we request the African Commission to do the following;
•Urge Member State abstain from increasing the guns with excessive ammunitions to law enforcement resulting in murder, inhumane and degrading treatment, assault, harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of citizens and impeding enjoyment of their safeguarded human and people’s rights. (Article 4 & 5 of the African Charter)
•To immediately and unconditionally release detained citizens, human rights defenders, members of opposition for exercising their freedom of expression, information and protests against hunger, housing, shelter and exposing exploitation of natural resources as well as corruption (Article 6 of the African Charter)
•Prosecute law enforcement officers for breaking the law, such as murder, assaults and arbitrary arrests
•Implement ACHP/Res 347 to free citizens from hunger with food security in times of natural and other disasters such as COVID19
•Reallocation of the needed budget to combat COVID19, such as PPE’s, wages and humanitarian aid. (Article 16 (2) & Article 15 of the African Charter)
•To do better in fighting COVID19 pandemic, ensuring enjoyment of safeguarded rights and participation of diverse groupings in the society without discrimination, including civil society, community based organisations, interfaith organisations, traditional, academia, unions, private sector, dissents, opposition, journalists, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities among others (Art 2 of the African Charter).
•To recognise their crucial roles more than ever during this time of public crisis and consider them as essential service providers to reach diverse communities and support them in driving the awareness initiatives for deeper understanding in prevention of COVID19 pandemic spread. (Article 13 (1) & 17 (2))

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We received concerning reports of flagrant violation of the right to disseminate information to the public. Enforcement of measures to mitigation the spread of COVID19 pandemic has been used as a pretext to restrict journalists from exercising their duties of covering stories and information about the pandemic, corruption and holding states accountable. In South Africa, the newspaper editor Paul Nthoba fled to Lesotho last week after repeated beatings by police in Ficksburg, Freestate Province for covering news on coronavirus epidemic.

This is the first time in post-apartheid South Africa that a journalist fled the country with the intention of seeking asylum as a result of reprisals in connection media role. He was assaulted in his attempt to lay a complaint against the police at the Ficksburg Police Station and detained arbitrarily for several hours. He reported the incidence to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, but police retaliated by charging him with violation of the lockdown regulations. He faces up to six months’ imprisonment under the Disaster Management Act, as amended in April 2020 to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. His trial is scheduled for 27 August.
Rubber bullets were also fired at Azarrah Karrim the News24 reporter while covering a lockdown enforcement operation in Johannesburg on the first day of the nationwide lockdown. This is in contravention of the spirit espoused by the COVID 19 National Command Council to work with citizens, national institutions, journalists and private sector to curb the pandemic. The Constitution safeguard freedom of expression, under Section 16 including freedom of the press. Furthermore, the Government is obliged to implement Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights which guarantee every individual the right to receive information, express and disseminate their opinions.

In Swaziland media and journalists face severe repression. The country has about 32 laws that restrict freedom of expression and media freedom. There is no broadcasting legislation or legislation to facilitate access to information. COVID19 is used to reinforce impeding laws for free flow of information and expression of views. Eugene Dube, the Editor of Swati Newsweek covering political, economic and social news. In May 2020, he fled the country following a brutal attack and raid by police officers for publishing articles criticizing the king. He had also posed questions on whether civilians should be assisted with food or cash during the COVID19 pandemic lockdown

The courts provide little recourse to such impunity regardless of protection of freedom of expression in the Constitution which is also guaranteed in the African Charter which the Swazi Kingdom is obliged to implement.

We are also raising our grave concern at the impunity persisting in Zimbabwe and the hostility held by government against journalists in exercising freedom of expression opinions and disseminating information to the public. The state security had forced entry onto the property of Hopewell Chino’ono, an award-winning journalist without a warrant and arbitrarily arrested him. The government has been using this tactic against voices or views exposing corruption, hunger and calling for implementation of the 2013 Constitution.

We are calling the ACHPR to urge the state parties to do the following:

•Abstain from abductions, assault, harassment, arbitrary arrests of journalists and guarantee them freedom and safety to conduct their work in their countries as stipulated in Article 9 of the African Charter as well as national constitutional imperatives.
•Implement the African Commission Declaration on Freedom of Expression in Africa adopted in November 2019, affirming individuals guaranteed right to freedom of expression and access to information in conformity with Article 9 of the African Charter.
•To develop framework including, undertaking reforms of information legislative frameworks in line with ACHPR Model Law on Access to Information in Africa
•Government of Zimbabwe to immediately and unconditionally release Hopewell Chino’ono and end persecutions in the country, including, targeting any other journalist carrying out their duties and media houses
•South Africa to arrests law enforcement officers responsible for the attack and arbitrary arrest of the journalist. To immediately drop charges against Paul Nthoba to enable him return home to assume his duties in a safe free environment
•The Kingdom of Swaziland to repeal repressive laws to freedom of expression, opinion and access to information to enable journalist carryout their duties without reprisal.

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COVID19 has intensified enforcement of restrictive legislative frameworks for associations to operate in conducive environments for independent functioning without fear of reprisals, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. They face hostilities in playing roles in public awareness raising, particularly in raising questions about COVID 19, protection of health workers, advocating for provision of humanitarian aid, exposing corruption, protesting against gender based violence / femicide, monitoring and documenting od human rights violations committed by law enforcement. In South Africa, law enforcement assaulted and arbitrarily arrested tertiary students for documenting police misconduct and excessive use of powers during enforcement of lockdown regulations. Their rights as accused persons were disregarded and spent a night in awaiting trial without legal representation or provided reason of their arrest. They were released the next day and police threatened them with a further arrest should they press criminal charges against them. In Zimbabwe, systematic abductions, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests is used by the state security agents to target citizens, human rights defenders, opposition for holding assemblies, protests, pickets. Three members of the MDC opposition had been arrested and denied bail for protesting against hunger in the country. Human rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested for picketing at the Ministry of Justice, renouncing the Constitutional Amendment Bill. Health workers were also arrested for protesting against the risk of contacting coronavirus due to the shortage of personal protection gear.

In Swaziland, the repressive laws of the country impeding on freedom of association, assembly and expression have further increased hostility to citizens in exercising their human rights. A lawyer was attacked and assaulted by security agents for consulting with his client even when doing so in respects COVID19 protocols. He sustained injuries on his ribs which security agents found him in breached of the lockdown regulations and insisted taking alcohol. The lockdown regulations have continuously been used as a pretext to prevent the spread of COVID 19 embarrassing people in need of medical health care or to replenish their supply of (anti retro rivals) ARVs at hospitals. A civil society activist for minority groups was attacked and had to return back home after attempting to buy bread at shops. He was further refused on the following day to consult a medical practitioner and report the violation of human rights.

These violations of human rights in the context of COVID19 have also increased gender based violence disproportionately leading to demonstrations conducted by women groups with a view of increasing prevention and prosecution of suspects. In South Africa, Human rights defenders including women, LGBTI +Q, Gender Based Violence actively campaigning against violence were met with police brutality during protests. This is in spite of the Constitutional Court’s unanimous judgement that re-emphasised the guaranteed right to protest – whether permission is obtained or not as per the Regulation of Gathering Act. Furthermore, women human rights defenders working on land and environmental issues and LGBTI activists are frequently targeted in the country and more needs to be done to ensure their safety from violence by state and non-state actors.

The emergence of strategic law suit against public participation – (Slapp) by multinational companies has threaten to silence critics of land and mining rights activists and academia in South Africa. Freedom of association, expression is guaranteed in the African Charter ((Article 9 & 10). The state is also bound to protect citizens with legislation against exploitation by foreign companies (Article 21 (5). It is the duty of the state to ensure prevention of abuse of citizens by multinational companies, including forcing citizens abandon their criticisms and advocacy action protecting communities against exploitation.

In light of these, and many other concerns, we call the African Commission on Human and people’s Rights to urge Member states to do the following:

•Ensure CSOs, HRDs across the country function in enabling environment and perform their duties independently in free civic space and without fear of reprisals, through enactment of mechanism for promotion & protection of human rights defender’s
•Enact legislation to prevent public participation, as well as freedom of associations to freely express themselves, conduct their human rights independently and without fear.
•Implementation of ACHPR guidelines of Freedom of Association and Assembly for holding assemblies in campaign, awareness raising, advocacy against human rights violations
•With immediate effect and unconditionally release human rights defenders, journalists, dissenting voices and members of opposition
•Arrest and prosecute law enforcement officers for abusing their powers in maintenance of law and order and promote solidarity, unity, especially in vulnerable communities and reduce budgets for armaments in favour of curbing COVID19.
•Follow up progress to end forced disappearances, extra judicial killings and violence against women human rights defenders, ensuring arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing of suspects.

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