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Women at the margins – realities of African women & Covid-19

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage Africa and the number of cases on the continent now reaching 35,000 as at 27 April 2020.

AfricanQuarters’ Mercie Wamoyi and Jean Kemitari, Director of Programmes at Urgent Action Fund-Africa in this interview explores how women in rural and urban slums, women in the informal economy, care and sex workers, women with disabilities and those with HIV & AIDS and gender non-conforming people are facing structural barriers in the Covid-19 response and also shedding light on the similarities between the Covid-19 and Ebola epidemic response in Africa.

Where women are in the face of Covid-19 Pandemic

Over many centuries, women have been looked down on as people of less value and worth to than their male counterpart, they have been relegated as mere subordinate. So when there is an epidemic, conflict or any emergency of any sort including pandemic like Covid-19, women bear the brunt of these challenges. In Africa today, as the number of cases increases across the continent and countries implement lockdown measures as part of preventive measures to limit the spread, women have been severely impacted in many ways particularly because of their gender roles.

Lockdown and African women’s realties

Women are predominantly the major caregivers in homes, they care for the sick ones, their children and they also do other domestic chores. As you know with lockdowns, it means that children are at home, in some families, there are grandparents and other relations, in the same house, care for all these adds to the challenges women face. Women who work in formal sector, are currently working from home, it means they have to do house chores and also meet up with their offices deliverables. They have to find a balance between work and home management, this adds to the strains women go through.

For the women in the informal sector, it is no less difficult, as they face the challenges of making a living and as well as managing their children, their elderly parents, their partners or husbands plus a whole range of other extended families issues. That is increasing their burden, you have to bear in mind that caregiving within the home is an unpaid work.

Women’s reproductive health and rights in a pandemic situation

Mothers and expecting mothers are having to deal with lots of issues navigating the curfew, to get to the hospital for one thing or another. When women are pregnant, they are usually given their delivery date. However, in pregnancy there are lots of surprises in terms of illnesses, which can necessitate trips to the hospital. Most don’t have private vehicle and there is no transportation, when they find one, they have to deal with the enforcement team on the road.

Enforcement of the lockdown in most places have been quite brutal, riddled with misunderstandings on the part of security agents on the road. She spoke of an information received last week from health workers in Uganda, which indicated that there are fewer mothers present at the health clinics to have their children than any other time in history.

This simply implies that a lot of mothers are now having their children in unsafe environments, without medical professionals. There are lots of other reproductive health issues that women need to attend to in the hospital; like on contraceptives and because of power dynamics in homes, some are using these contraceptives secretly, the current situations makes it difficult for them to access the medications.

In general for health care, except for women in urban centres and the working class; healthcare lies in the hands of men, because women depend on them for money and permission to access healthcare. People on medications like the HIV & AIDS medications it is also difficult for them to access those ARVs.

Surge in domestic violence

Closely related to health is the issue of domestic wellbeing, there has been increase in domestic violence and women are the biggest victims and survivors of the situation. One in three women in the world experience violence in the home setting and outside the home.

The lockdown has come with increased pressure in the homes, as a result people are taking out their frustrations on women and children in the homes. Urgent Action Fund-Africa has had an increase in number of violence incidents report they receive, which has led to a surge in applications across the continents for violence response support.

Across the continent it might not be possible right now to put a figure to it, however, in South Africa, within one or two weeks of the lockdown, there were about 10,000 calls to the police with complaints of domestic violence.

There are organisations across the continent that Urgent Action Fund-Africa partners with in different countries that have reported recent increase in violence and have also reached out for support. In addition, news report from different countries across Africa, have also provided information on the surge in violence. And that is not just in Africa by the way, but global.

Professional risks and challenges in caregiving roles

The frontline workers that are in the caregiving industry, where women are dominating still have to go to work to provide their services, even with the lockdown, they battle difficulty in transportation and risk of attacks because the roads are lonely.

More so, they are regularly exposed to the virus, but the job has to be done, they are the first contact with those coming either with symptoms or the confirmed cases and sometimes they are the only contacts the patients have in full recovery or death. These were seen a lot during the ebola epidemic in West Africa, women who are in caregiving industry were readily infected because of their professional service.

Economic impact of lockdown on women’s lives

Women at the margins – realities of African women & Covid-19Most women are engaged in the informal sector, they work at the micro level of the economy, when governments provide stimulus to fast-track economic recovery at the macro level, like reduction in interest rate at the central bank, which makes commercial banks to also reduce their interest rates. Then monies borrowed by big businesses at macro levels get reliefs in paying back loans taken. Whereas most women who are at the micro level, borrow from their money clubs or micro finance groups, this doesn’t help them as the stimulus don’t get to them.

Currently, markets are closed they can’t assess it, and most of the women rely on what they make daily to feed their families, now they are unable to do that because of the lockdown.

Security challenges experienced by women human rights defenders and minority groups

In general safety, there are women human right defenders, who speak out about political rights issues, economic right issues, social right and justice. During this lockdown, they are like a sitting dock, their homes are increasingly under surveillance in different parts of the world and in Africa in particular. This puts them at risk because their activities are being surveilled because of the work they do, they are facing a lot of issues.

And then, there are marginalised communities that are also bearing the brunt of the situation more; like women with disabilities, the commercial sex workers, the gender non conforming women, they are all bearing the brunt of this Covid-19 lockdown.

Parallel between Covid-19 and Ebola outbreak responses

Most information out there to educate people on ways to protect themselves are in English, like the case in ebola situation, Urgent Action Fund-Africa provided lots of support in 2017 for women to translate messages in local languages, they are also doing the same thing now. They supported the translation of these messages into local languages to make it easier for the women to grasp; like the importance of using personal protective equipment (PPEs) and the implications of not using it.

There are also similarities for women in caregiving roles, even those in professional caregiving role like nurses, there are limited number of PPEs now, that was also the case during Ebola outbreak. So preventative and health measures need to have specific agenda to address all these issues.

African women’s response during Ebola outbreak and how it can help in the fight against Covid-19

In all emergencies or pandemics, communities are usually the first responders because they are there when the incidents happen. Mostly those present in these communities are women, they coped during the ebola outbreak because before they received support, they organised themselves into community groups, they were able to support each other by sharing information about the spread and necessary measures required to stop the spread, information were translated in languages that people can readily understand in various communities and tailored to their norms.

They were able to improvise even before outside help came, some where using refuse bin bags as protective gears similar situations are also playing out now in the fight against Covid-19.

Lesson from it is the need to engage communities instead of looking at everything from the technical level only, there’s need to engage with the socio-cultural effects of the virus and this involves working with the communities. Messages conveyed through community leaders carries more weight and are readily adhered to in the community, this is particularly important because there are lots of fake news and conspiracy theories out there.

Social distancing, self-isolation and stack reality of poverty

Women are finding it difficult to cope because they have to work, can you imagine the woman who sales vegetables or roast maize in the street? Those who earn their daily bread from what they make daily. She said that at Urgent Action Fund-Africa they have seen considerable increase on request for grants for food and alternative shelter because people are finding it extremely difficult to cope.

Grants available for organisations are inadequate to provide cash transfer, though governments are providing food but with their mechanisms not everyone can be reached. Another question is the quantity of food they are giving, how far can it go for those who are lucky to get it. This calls for community based approach, using the people on ground to know who, what and how to provide help.

She noted that in Uganda, there are some women who have to sleep in the market as were directed because they cannot be allowed to move around. They sell their wares in the day and sleepover in the market, lucky ones have mosquito nets, some got the ones provided by government and well wishers, others got nothing, exposing them to mosquito bites and possibly malaria attack.

What needs to be done to address the situation

African countries need to take into consideration the issue of basic needs that people have been deprived of as result of the lockdown and the measures that have been in place. The balance between the brutal enforcement and meeting the basic needs, if we could have cash transfers to vulnerable families, expansion of the provision of food and plugging loopholes in government orchestrated by corruption in food distributions because though some governments are trying but those efforts are being marred by corruption.

Women should get informed, and be aware of the danger that a pandemic like Covid-19 exposes women to, like violence and know where they can get help even during this lockdown. There are lots of places women can get help if they find themselves in difficult situations.

Kemitare expressed her solidarity with women in leadership positions across Africa, who are doing a very good job in addressing Covid-19. “I will call on them to emphasis the gendered nature of Covid-19, we would like them to address the gender impact of the virus across social, economic and health safety dimensions”, she noted.

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