A Gender Crisis within the Covid-19 Pandemic One Month after National Lockdown

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission Act, informed by Section 246 of the Constitution, mandates the Commission to monitor issues concerning gender equality. To this end, the Commission notes with concern the gendered impact of COVID-19, within a month of the National Lockdown. While the Commission commends the government for taking precautionary measures against the spread of the deadly pandemic, unfortunately gender equality guarantees in the Constitutional Bill of Rights have not adequately influenced the national response to the pandemic.

Long-term programmes to transform Zimbabwe towards a more gender equal society that empowers the marginalised and protects the vulnerable groups have largely been shelved to make way for short-term emergency programming. The emergency response should still ensure equal access to protection, opportunities and treatment of women, men, girls and boys in line with constitutional guarantees.

In light of the above, the Commission has observed that inequalities inherent in Zimbabwe have overtly and covertly been exacerbated by COVID-19. Overtly because of inadequate analysis of and integration of gender within the national response. Covertly, due to the unforeseen adverse effects of overlooking the gender dimension in the problem analysis, formulation and design, planning and implementation of the responses.

Monitoring of reports by partners and other stakeholders from government, private sector, civil society, faith based sector and development agencies, ZGC highlights the existence of a gender-crisis within the Covid-19 pandemic and response as follows:

  • Lockdown of public service delivery machinery – the physical distancing requirement has necessitated the shutting down of non-essential government services. While limited services remain, the reduced access affects women and men differently depending on their needs. Access to water and sanitation largely remains inadequate. Energy too, especially wood fuels, remain in short supply for those without electricity.
  • Policy focus – the COVID-19 response and related services remains the focus steered through the National Taskforce and relevant state and non-state institutions. Focus on mainstreaming gender equality in programmes, among others, has thus been diverted leaving the response being the only way in which specific needs of women, men, boys and girls can be addressed. The usual disparity between policy pronouncements and programming has also featured. Reports of some harassment of citizens by police monitoring conformity to national call to stay at home highlights the overriding national need to protect, not just from the pandemic but other threats such as hunger.
  • Shocks to the informal economy – Statistics reveal that the Zimbabwean economy is predominantly informal with economic renewal policies still to bear fruit. The informal economy has been the most active providing income for the majority families. Access to disposable income is a daily quest to ensure that food is available among the mostly daily-wage-earners dependent on vending and other forms. The lockdown has largely shut down the informal economy affecting millions of Zimbabweans especially women and girls – who are the major players in the informal sector. Arduous processes of identifying, vetting and approving indigent people to receive cash transfer, mean delays in access to these cushions. Destruction of the market stalls by local authorities, while commendable from a formalization perspective, may lead to unequal access by poor and vulnerable groups, come end of lockdown, further worsening poverty.
  • Compromised food security and nutrition – the lockdown has presented a conundrum on food security and nutrition among many families in Zimbabwe. Without reliable livelihood options, some sections of the population have become extremely vulnerable to hunger and starvation. Even though some shops and supermarkets have been opening at scheduled intervals, the fights (pushing and shoving) for access to affordable commodities is so physical that some groups – women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities – cannot cope. Some families, majority of whom are female and child headed families still cannot afford the subsidized mealie meal, when this is available. In the absence of a robust social protection mechanism, food security situation worsens. The same vulnerable groups intrinsically suffer the double brunt of being the vulnerable in a society that has no food security so need to be specially targeted. Prevailing stereotypes in an emergency like this, may lead to discrimination of key populations as they are over-looked by the response mechanisms.
  • Closure of educational institutions – Prolonged periods outside school are a threat to the envisaged outcomes of that calendar year for schools. Even though home schooling is being encouraged, the scope is relatively new and further increases the multiple roles of women, already over-burdened by household chores. Online education, as an alternative, increases gap among those with and without access to the required technology, leaving others, mainly from poor and rural communities, behind. Spending more time online also exposes children to cyber-bulling, sex-predators, pornographic material and all other online vices. Reports show that out of school students, particularly girls, are in a more precarious situation as they risk falling pregnant and dropping out of school indefinitely.
  • High demand for health care – COVID-19 is essentially a health problem with far reaching tentacles across other sectors. Generally, the pandemic has magnified existing challenges in the sector. National targets for screening, testing & contact tracing remain unmet meaning increased vulnerability to infection as people go about their duties. Women are functionally providers of health care at household and professional level. Other than constituting a bigger percentage of professional health care practitioners in Zimbabwe, cultural practices largely give women and girls the responsibility of providing health care to sick family members. The pandemic has added another layer of responsibility on women and girls from a prevention, protection and care perspective. While both men and women are vulnerable to infection, increased exposure also comes from expected roles and responsibilities in addition to access to personal protective equipment. When a country is faced with a health pandemic to the scale of COVID-19, other health issues become secondary as reports shortages in sexual and reproductive health services including contraceptives. This has dire consequences of unplanned pregnancies post-COVID-19.
  • Gender Based Violence – Media and reports by institutions such as Musasa and Padare show an unprecedented increase in GBV namely domestic violence manifesting in physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse among family members. Musasa, for example, reports that they have attended to more than 1200 reports at the end of April, more than double the usual per month. Padare, the Men’s Forum on Gender Equality, reports that during the same period, they had received more than 50 reports of domestic violence on men since the lockdown started, a stark increase. While the ZRP registered a reduced number of reports since the lockdown, they acknowledged that this might be due to lack of mobility for survivors. The situation for survivors, mainly women and girls, becomes desperate, as abusers are locked-up with their victims while limited mobility reduces the usual access to external assistance. Children are also trapped in this vicious cycle of violence as witnesses and/or victims. Women and girls are the worst affected in these circumstances. While schools generally provide safe shelter for children, these have been closed indefinitely further locking them within homes.
  • Unequal access to information – a lot of effort to provide information has been made by government and other stakeholders. Physical distancing has shut down the traditional ways of communication, through schools, traditional and other leaders, extended family among others. Television and radio stations have carried relevant messages consistently and continuously. Some groups have however reported inadequate access to the information due to lack of access to the ICT used in information sharing. While those with access have been adequately informed, those without, have been left in the dark, further exposing them to infection.

While we acknowledge the scale of the pandemic and the strain it has put on all sectors, we call upon government, civil society organisations, private sector, development agencies and other stakeholders to:

  • Recognize the gender dynamics in emergencies and ensure that respective response mechanisms are gender responsive;
  • Enhance respective social protection systems – through robust safety nets – with a deliberate emphasis on giving preference to the vulnerable members of the society, which includes women, children, elderly and persons with disabilities, among other groups;
  • Ensure that economic recovery plans also target women who are the majority in the informal economy;
  • Include key populations such as children living on the streets, prisoners and sex workers, among other groups, in respective response mechanisms. When nations are faced with such a serious life-threatening emergency like COVID-19, they often overlook the needs of key populations such as sex workers.

ZGC appeals, once again, to every Zimbabwean citizen to follow all health and other guidelines and requirements for the fight against COVID-19.

Source: Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC)