Covid-19 Zim Lockdown: Gendered Impacts, Implications and Effects on Women and Girls as Primary Caregivers

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a global challenge that affects our lives and our work. Zimbabwe is under a total lockdown for a period of 21 days from Monday 30th March 2020 as a precautionary and mitigation measure to fight and flatten the #COVID-19 curve. Though the Government of Zimbabwe maintains that the country is ready to deal with the virus, last week doctors and nurses who work in public hospitals went on strike over the lack of protective equipment. Recognising that the lockdown is necessary to slow the spread of #COVID-19 as the country races against time, however it will be hard for many. This article provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak and calls for the state accountability for the Redistribution of Resources and delivery of quality, gender responsive public services such as water and sanitation. There are many glaring insights on addressing the disproportionate gendered impacts on women and girls identifying gaps for corrective action, drawing on examples of the government of Zimbabwe’s nonchalant responses to date.

Apart from the ill-equipped health facilities, cities like Harare have no running water. Acute water shortages sometimes last for months – even years – and have made regular handwashing nearly impossible. As a result, marginalized communities and vulnerable groups such as women and girls will bear a differentiated and disproportionate burden due to this global Coronavirus outbreak. In the poor suburb of Waterfalls Retreat where I am writing from, residents crowd around communal wells, heightening fears that the virus will be spread by close contact leaving many women and girls at risk. Social distancing remains an elusive goal. The Cyclone Idai experiences highlighted the disproportionate impacts of emergency health crisis on women and girls. We must draw on these lessons to transform power when led primarirly by those who are directly affected.

According to the UNFPA COVID-19 Report titled: A Gender Lens: Protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights, and promoting gender equality. Disease outbreaks affect women and men differently, and pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls and discrimination of other marginalized groups such as persons with disabilities and those in extreme poverty, worse. The quarantine and lockdown interrupt daily life increasing risks to physical and mental health, reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls. Schools closures have the biggest impacts on girls’ lives, with girls being least likely to return to school following this crisis. Girls face increased risks of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and the loss of vital sexual and reproductive health services as resources are diverted elsewhere. This then calls government for considerations and desist from the copy and paste approach but should treat our context with the uniqueness it deserves so as not to leave no one behind given the different impacts surrounding women and men. Government actions need to be targeted at different needs of citizens. There is need for the advancement of Transformative, Women-Led COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness, Response and Prevention public information campaigns relating to the current and anticipated impacts of the pandemic for women and girls.

The lockdown intervention will have varying degrees of inconvenience, discomfort and consequences for citizens especially in a highly informalized economy like Zimbabwe where one’s ability to earn is determined by their presence in specific locations. The informal sector has become the life blood of the economy as it is now the biggest employer and arguably the engine of the nation’s productive capacity. For most Zimbabweans who are already wallowing in poverty, this pandemic has come at a worse time because being forced to stay indoors for that long will be a further depression. With high unemployment in Africa most women and girls form the bulk of the informal sector labour force. The huge population of women and girls in Zimbabwe and Africa present a paradox of big numbers and big challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic.

During this 21 day lockdown period, people are being recommended asked to stay home and be safe, but one thing that has been forgotten is that not all homes are safe for women. Home is where one should feel safe and secure. For many women and girls, home is a place of violence and increased intrafamily tensions. Confinement to the home increases tensions that can promote the breakdown of an already weakened family dynamic and bring serious risks of violence. During this time, however, no information regarding Gender Based Violence reporting mechanisms and support services for victims of gender-based violence has been outlined in the COVID19 response initiatives during the 21day lockdown by the COVID-19 Response Taskforce to protect women and girls at risk. It is clear that the government’s commitment to safeguarding and sustaining the lives of vulnerable citizens is non-existent and questionable. The government made a huge assumption that homes are safe, but it is disappointingly clear that homes are not safe for women; we know the facts.

Whilst the lockdown is a necessary evil to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the effectiveness of the lockdown is in doubt considering the state of public service delivery in most parts of the country where the majority of citizens, for instance, rely on community boreholes and the concern is around the need for social distancing. Combating the spread of COVID-19 requires that households have adequate water, sanitation, hygiene, healthcare waste management, and cleaning. Zimbabwe has been bedeviled by water challenges due to the collapse of service delivery in both urban municipalities and rural councils. The government of Zimbabwe has not taken measures to ensure that water is available to all, accessible without discrimination. Worth noting is the recently won City of Harare Residents Association court application that ordered urgent water provision in Harare. The provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting human health during this COVID-19 outbreak. Consequently, the people most affected by this are women who are responsible for the general welfare of the family. It is currently reported that women on average visit the boreholes three times a day to fetch water in urban suburbs where hordes of people are gathering trying to access the precious liquid from boreholes and other unprotected water sources. In most cases, without adequate water and sanitation these settings themselves may be a locus for the spread of the disease.

Women globally do almost 2.5 times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, and they are more likely than men to face additional care giving responsibilities during this pandemic lockdown period. In Africa societies, the lockdown can be mistaken for an excuse to subject women to an unbearable burden of unpaid care work. Children are stuck at home with no school to attend and all recreational activities in clubs, sports halls are cancelled thereby increasing the strain of care work on women and girls. Already organizations like ActionAid and Oxfam are calling on the governments to recognize, redistribute and reduce the disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work within households, society, employers and state.

During this confinement, it is no doubt members of a household will be competing for limited basic resources within the home, gender inequality may mean women and girls have less access during this lockdown period. Basic supplies are in short supply and the panic buying that ensued from the pronouncement exposed a lot of inadequacies in our basic service provision for communities. Women, especially from the less privileged societies, are bearing the brunt as they might not be able to access sexual and reproductive health conveniences. Menstrual poverty is a reality, because like all basic commodities, the price of sanitary wear during the lockdown has skyrocketed. Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is a significant public health issue that requires high attention especially the provision of free sanitary pads for women and girls to restore their dignity should be a priority amid the fight against the pandemic.

At the time of penning of this epistle, 10 positive cases and 1 death have been recorded but if the pandemic comes with the same viciousness as we are witnessing in better equipped countries like Italy, Spain and England, the impact will be unimaginable. In the Report: Their Voices Matter, ZIMRIGHTS notes that in this fight against COVID 19, community voices matter because there is No Option for the Vulnerable as vendors have openly declared that, “The streets are our home… where do we go?” Up to 95 percent of female workers in Zimbabwe work in the informal sector where there is no job security, and no safety net during this COVID-19 crisis. Government must involve women in all decision-making processes at all levels, as prevention and mitigation programs are rolled-out. All State programs must be guided by clear gender analysis and must be led by what women say they need in this moment.

At this critical moment in time, it is imperative to remind the responsible authorities that there is an urgent need to protect the rights of the poor and those most vulnerable to manipulation for example women-headed families that rely on social welfare programmes such as health and food schemes. The country remains in a fragile state when it comes to food security. The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) estimates that 5.5 million people, 38 percent of the rural population, is currently food insecure whilst urban food insecurity is now affecting 2.2 million people, the provision of safety net handouts to the poor and vulnerable remains a priority.

This glaring shortcomings show that government announced the 21day lockdown without reflecting about its implications and effects the most vulnerable such as women and girls. To all intents and purposes, this write-up is hereby documented with the hope that will be able to influence the decisions about COVID 19 and how measures to fight it are implemented in an approach that is not only sensitive to human rights but rather in way that are proactive to the rights of the most vulnerable. The provision of quality gender responsive public services can never be further over-emphasized.

Source: Alfred Towo*

*Alfred Towo is a Digital Programming Expert in the development field. He writes in his own capacity. Feedback on WhatsApp 0775265509 Email aliphytowo@gmail.com