Unravelling the impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls

It sounds cliché, but COVID-19 will adversely affect women and girls. Traditionally, they carry the brunt of war , famine and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have a more gender-biased effect.

The nature of a woman’s body and the roles women play in many cases puts women in harm’s way. Especially in Africa, women are the frontline care givers and support systems. It is they who must consistently ensure that homes are clean and safe and there is a steady supply of water. Statistics in Malawi, for example, show that 82 percent of domestic work is done by women and 18 percent by men. In rural areas, domestic work can mean fetching water up to five times a day, each journey 2-4 kilometers, using a traditional form of carrying water — the top of the head.

How ironic that to fight this pandemic, scientists say, it is prudent to often wash hands for 20 seconds. The fact is, the amount of water needed for this is staggering. For those with clean water coming out of pipes, this does not seem to be a daunting task. But take these statics seriously: key findings of a 2019 Zimbabwe survey show that slightly more than six in 10 Zimbabweans have basic drinking water services, with 92 percent in urban areas and 51 percent in rural areas. Surveys note that the average time spent collecting and fetching water in rural areas is between 31 minutes and 3 hours each day. Surveys show that water collection is primarily the responsibility of women 15 years and older — 79 percent women collect water vs 21 percent of men.

Entrenched traditional patriarchal systems mean men do not go to the local borehole to collect water. In this season of COVID-19 and with 60 percent of our population being rural, women are carrying this health burden. Girls usually help fetch water, but in our villages, younger girls have
been asked not to go fetch water to reduce the possibility of infection. The concern is that younger people might not be able to adhere to the sanitization regime needed to ensure boreholes do not become breeding grounds for community infection. Keeping boreholes sanitized is a tall order as all manner of people need to use water, and most rural boreholes do not have a tap, but rather a hand pump. Practicing social distancing is hard when boreholes are both manual and old, rusty and difficult for one person to pump. Women, thus, must try to ensure the safety of their families yetstill protect themselves.

Gathering firewood is an essential task traditionally assigned to women. They must forage for wood outside their rural homes and in peri-urban areas, possibly coming into contact with other women and increasing chances of community infection. In some cases, women do this chore as a group because being alone in the woods makes one a target for attack, usually rape.

It is not an overestimation to say that most families were caught unprepared for the lockdowns around the world, but more so here in Africa. The nature of our economies is such that savings are impossible. People live hand-to-mouth, and as lockdowns take effect, the entrepreneurial spirit cannot be sustained. This means households just do not have the food and resources to make it through the lockdown. Unfortunately, in these times, men usually have better resources, means and bargaining power.

Herein lies the danger for women and girls – transactional sex. This will be high for those women and girls in vulnerable situations who might not have resources to alleviate hunger. The lopsided nature of the transactions mean girls and women might not be able to negotiate for safer sex, thus opening them to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Domestic violence also will be on the rise. A 2019 national survey suggested that 22 percent of women in Zimbabwe experienced some type of emotional violence in the past 12 months. This statistic reflected the context of daily life without the added anxiety about the current pandemic. Beer has been labelled an essential service in Zimbabwe during the outbreak. While one cannot argue that alcohol consumption is a social pastime that helps keep vast swaths of our population occupied in these difficult times and a good number of people are employed in the alcoholic beverage industry, one can argue that it is also the fire that lights the wrath of domestic violence. Perpetrators inebriated when families are cooped up with limited social protection systems is a recipe for disaster. Those who abuse by pushing, shaking, twisting and pulling arms and hair, punching, kicking, dragging, beating, strangling, burning, threatening and otherwise attacking women and girls might be wrecking havoc when social support systems are at their lowest. Women are facing domestic and sexual violence in silence, without a means of recourse. This scenario is exacerbated by the fact that CSOs and NGOs have not been deemed essential services during the lockdown, increasing the vulnerability of women and girls.

The hours people are spending together at home are unprecedented, and it is no wonder that the biggest condom maker said its stocks had plummeted significantly. The nature of lockdowns is such that contraceptive access and use will be limited, creating conditions for unwanted pregnancies, backyard abortions, breeding grounds for sexually transmitted diseases and the negative impacts of increased population and disease.

It is no secret that India manufactures the bulk of anti-retroviral treatments used across Africa and the developing world. It is common knowledge that women and girls are the bulk of those affected by HIV/AIDS. India has been under lockdown, and factories that produce these treatments are not operating at full capacity. The availability of these drugs in the marketplace will be affected, possibly with long term negative impacts as women and girls struggle to access medications. COVID-19 has taken a toll on both human and financial resources, with governments having to ensure social protective nets are created to deal with the immediate effect of the pandemic. Budgets have been reduced for other essential services, such as child care and maternal care. This means an even greater burden on the shoulders of women who are the frontline, unpaid care-givers for the sick, disabled and vulnerable. All this inadvertently puts women and girls’ health at risk and jeopardizes their lifelong wellbeing.

As this pandemic unravels, as we all push to make it through this difficult time, we must understand that what we do or do not do in light of COVID-19 can leave deep, long-term impacts on the lives of women — who make up more than half our population. Our choices could stifle their potential to grow, lead and prosper, and thus our country’s.

Source: Sefelepelo Sebata

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