Press Release

Redefining and Strengthening Human Rights Activism and Development work in the Context of COVID-19

21 August 2020

  • In a crisis of this magnitude, a human rights-based approach is critical to ensuring that responses are respectful of human rights and dignity, particularly for women who find themselves in multi-faceted situations of vulnerability.

Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas opened thanking Ilitha Labanthu for organizing the important event and for the opportunity to speak on the role of human rights organs in supporting women to realize their human rights during the pandemic. She also wished all participants a happy women’s month. The year 2020, which marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality and women’s rights. However, despite our efforts not a single country today can claim to have achieved gender equality. Instead, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has forestalled States’ efforts and in many respects, the gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. 

Lockdowns have confined many women with their abusers at the time when services to support survivors of sexual and gender based violence have been redirected to respond to COVID-19. As these cases rise we know that this is a broader manifestation of discrimination against women. 

In almost every aspect of life – from health to the economy, security to social protection – the impacts of COVID-19 are worse for women and girls. The pandemic has not only brought to the fore the pre-existing socio-economic inequalities for which women bear the most brunt, but also risk deepening the fissures of gender inequality and exacerbating the scourge of sexual and gender based violence.


In a crisis of this magnitude, a human rights-based approach is critical to ensuring that responses are respectful of human rights and dignity, particularly for women who find themselves in multi-faceted situations of vulnerability. This country knows that from its own history, its own struggle against injustice and the resilience of its people. 

The phenomenon that was created by the demands unleashed by the powerful women of the Black Sash movement was a clear manifestation of formidable women in this country standing for their human rights and that of generations to come. 

Today, human rights organs that are constituted by national human rights protection systems, regional and international human rights treaties play a critical role in holding States accountable for their human rights obligations towards women, particularly during a crisis such as the one engendered by COVID-19. 

South Africa boasts of a venerable institutional architecture for the protection and promotion of human rights, including women’s rights. The Constitution, painstakingly negotiated in the run-up to the 1994 first democratic elections, is the bedrock of South Africa’s non-racial, post-apartheid society including its Chapter 9 institutions. 

South Africa is also a prominent player in the UN human rights system having served on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and ratified a number of core regional and United Nations human rights treaties and optional protocols, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women and the Maputo Protocol on women’s rights. To date 14 country visits by the UN special procedures have been conducted the most recent, by the Independent Expert on persons with albinism last year. 

The experts that sit in various committees to review state compliance with their international human rights obligations have underscored that in view of the gendered impact of COVID-19 human rights institutions must be placed at the centre of the fight against this pandemic to ensure that States adhere to their human rights obligations. 

The CEDAW Committee has emphasized that the “COVID-19 response and post-crisis recovery plans should promote women’s economic empowerment and address gender inequalities in employment and social protection systems”. The Committee has also reminded States parties that they have a “due diligence obligation to prevent and protect women from, and hold perpetrators accountable for gender-based violence”. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also observed that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to deepen gender inequalities as the burden of caring for children at home and for sick or older family members falls disproportionately on women, given the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and roles in many societies. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women issued a set of 12 measures for States to integrate a gender sensitive intersectional approach in their responses to COVID19. This includes the areas of participation, political and legislative measures, prevention and redress of violence against women, access to support services and emergency measures, capacity gaps of security agents and justice actors, women’s economic empowerment, social protection schemes for women, access to sexual and reproductive health services, access to protection orders and rape crisis centres, protection of female health and social workers, specific attention to the needs of marginalized women and girls, and disaggregated of data. 

All these areas are pertinent to South Africa and could constitute a roadmap of immediate action. It is important that all actors including civil society make full use of these measures and recommendations as they are authoritative and constitute legal guarantees that serve as a means to support the implementation of recommendations that South Africa is treaty bound to address. 

In South Africa, the crisis engendered by COVID-19 is manifesting itself against a background of prevalent sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) and harmful practices against women and girls in South Africa, including rape, femicide, ukuthwala, the killing of “witches”, and forced virginity testing. These are some of the violations that international and local human rights bodies including the CEDAW Committee have urged South Africa to review. 

The pandemic has also provided fertile ground for xenophobic attacks against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees and women migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees continue to face discrimination based on prejudices and negative stereotypes that intersect with their sex. 

In this 25th Anniversary year of Beijing +25 we must collectively tackle the unfinished business of empowering women through a new, ground-breaking, multi-stakeholder, multigenerational ACTION campaign: Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future. 

The Generation Equality Forum has launched a set of six catalytic Action Coalitions, led by Members states from the Global South and North, with NGOs and the private sector. The Action Coalitions are global, innovative, multi-stakeholder partnerships that will catalyse collective action; spark global and local conversations among generations; drive increased public and private investment; and deliver concrete, game-changing results across generations for girls and women 

The time is now to Stand Up for Human Rights and for women to lead for change in this era of Generation Equality. 

I thank you.


Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, Resident Coordinator, UN in South Africa

Zeenat Abdool

Zeenat Abdool

Communication and Advocacy Officer, UNAIDS South Africa

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Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

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