Covid-19 and women: This is what government needs to do

National response needs to be gender sensitive and pro-poor

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Photo of protesters
Thousands gathered outside Parliament in September 2019 to protest against gender based violence. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

The Covid-19 pandemic will affect women in specific and distinct ways. It may amplify existing gender inequalities and may especially affect women who survive on the peripheries of the economy.

The perpetuation of violence against women is tightly interlinked with social and economic relations. The lockdown measures, as well as the suspension of regular income, may increase tensions in the home.

Following the Ebola epidemic, West Africa saw an increase in cases of gender based violence (GBV), owing to household stress caused by financial constraints. More recently, China saw a surge in GBV between January and February 2020, after a lockdown measure was announced in December. There is no reason to think this will not be the South African experience.

The national Covid-19 plan, as explained by Nkateko Chauke, and many others, does not sufficiently address the effects that the lockdown measures will have on women who experience GBV, and who may be forced to remain indoors with their abusers.

The coronavirus lockdown will also intensify the need for unpaid care work, undertaken primarily by women. This refers to all non-market activities – including both direct care of children or elderly people, and indirect care, such as cooking or fetching water. As a result of the social norms that view care work as “women’s work”, women undertake at least twice as much unpaid care work as men.

This work occurs both within and outside the household. Within the confines of the home, women will likely shoulder a great deal of additional housework, childcare, care for the elderly, as well as emotional support, during the pandemic.

Outside the home, undervalued care work will be at the centre of containing the virus. In the context of a dilapidated public healthcare system, women will be at the frontline of subsidising the lack of state capacity in providing the necessary healthcare. Community healthcare workers, for example, are considered essential services and many still do not have access to sufficient medical supplies and protective gear.

Pandemic provides an opportunity

The pandemic provides an opportunity for government to act in a way that addresses the systemic economic violence faced by women that is the basis of the gendered vulnerability women face in times of strain.

This action must include securing additional income support, preventing GBV, expanding public health care services, and the socialisation of care.

The epidemic is causing job losses in the informal sector. But it may have greater impact on women than men. For example, after the global financial crisis, the informal-sector share of women and men employed in this sector fell to 16.6% each in 2009. By 2014, women’s employment in informal employment continued to decline to 14.7% while informal sector participation increased to 18.7% for men, despite the size of the sector remaining relatively the same size. The President has announced that a safety net for those in the informal sector will be developed, but no formal proposal has been announced to date.

A Universal Basic Income, or a Covid-19 grant targeted to people below a certain income level, will assist those that have been – and continue to be – invisible in the country’s economy.

Feeding schemes should be established to ensure nutritious food to the most vulnerable, and the provision of supplements to build people’s immune systems. Safe childcare facilities should be considered for parents who are in quarantine, as is currently being undertaken by Japan’s trade unions. And men must be publicly encouraged to share the care load and extra household responsibilities.

Extra vigilance must be taken during this period to avoid GBV and ensure swift and effective law enforcement. Platforms of safe communication must be set up, such as a free GBV whistle-blower hotline or call centres, for women and children in need of police assistance. These can also be used as an information platform for information on available sexual and reproductive care.

Several organisations such as the National Shelter Movement, Rape Crisis and others have taken the initiative to set up valuable spaces for women to report violence. Resources for these initiatives must be scaled up by government to assist in providing shelter, counselling and legal aid.

Increasing access to information is vital, particularly in African languages. This includes growing awareness of the risks and consequences of sexual violence in the context of infectious disease outbreaks. Information should be shared across various communication platforms, with particular emphasis on radio.

Given community healthcare workers’ frontline interaction with communities, they face a higher risk of exposure. Free, safe government-funded transport should be provided for all community healthcare workers. Free medical equipment and airtime must also be provided.

With such proximity to the community, women are well placed to positively influence the design and implementation of prevention activities and community engagement. So it is important to strengthen the leadership and participation of women in regional and national level responses.

We should all urge the President to prioritise a pro-poor, gender-sensitive approach to economic policies, both within, and beyond, the pandemic. The Covid-19 response plan can galvanise a new economic trajectory for South Africa, one that is not blind to the realities of women and children.

Sonia Phalatse is an economist and researcher for the Institute for Economic Justice.

Opinions expressed are not necessarily the views of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  Covid-19 Gender

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