As in any disaster, women and girls are impacted upon differently because of their low status within society. South Africa is a deeply patriarchal society in which there is a serious power imbalance between men and women resulting in inequality on a structural and interpersonal level between genders. The discrimination and oppression of women and girls is widely accepted within families and communities placing heavy burdens on them.
Masimanyane Women’s Rights International (MWRI) works with the most vulnerable marginalised women who face challenges that include but are not limited to poverty, unemployment or under employment, poor sexual and reproductive health, gender based violence and high levels of HIV infection rates.
The women who will be most affected within the communities of the Eastern Cape and further afield, are Black African women from rural and marginalised communities who have little to no access to necessary resources. These challenges are exacerbated in times of disaster such as the country is facing now.
MWRI held several meetings with women over the past week looking into the likely impact of the Corona Virus on them. The groups included women from urban and rural environments and some from informal settlements (slums). This is a summary of their concerns.
One of the most serious challenges women are facing is the loss of work. Women in the formal sector and the large numbers of women who are employed within the informal sector, some are on short term contracts, others in farm work or domestic work and all of these are under threat due to the social isolation strategy.
Some 35% of women are sole breadwinners to their families with many being dependent upon them. With this loss of work, food security is threatened, access to basic services will be compromised including access to health care facilities for testing or for treatment. The overall well -being of the family is compromised.
The anxiety that this causes in women results in health problems which include chronic conditions which in turn will reduce their immunity. A further concern will be mental health concerns due to stress and fear at no longer being able to support their families.
Women in the formal sector who are asked to work from home, are sometimes asked to work at reduced days and at reduced rates which compromises the family’s resources.
Women in the retail and hospitality industry continue to have to go to work to service the needs of the public. They are vulnerable to COVID-19 in the course of their work and while companies are saying that they will provide protective gear, our experience is that this will not be carried through by most companies especially the smaller enterprises. Women are thus vulnerable and can be potential carriers of COVID-19 to their families and communities.
Public transport is another serious concern for women who have to go to work or engage in activities outside of the home, eg. going to clinics and hospitals to collect medications etc. Taxis (most commonly used public transport) in SA have seating for 14-18 people and such congestion is an added risk taking into account social distancing.
A second very serious concern is care work. This relates to the care of children, the disabled and the elderly for whom women are responsible in most families.
Children off from school require supervision and care and many of the children from the communities we serve, depend on state funded meals received at school. With the closure of these schools, the children lose that support and the burden is placed on women to provide the additional food/nutrition which the already strained household budget cannot manage.
Care for the elderly and disabled will be affected by the social isolation strategy. Families who have carers will be concerned about those carers possibly bringing infections to the elderly or not being able to attend to them at all due to their own isolation. This is a serious challenge for women still having to work but not having the security of care for those left at home.
Dealing with illness
If a family member is infected, most homes in our targeted communities have no hope of isolation much less the suggested quarantine options for the ill. The spaces are either too small but most are non- existent. In rural communities, families share one large rondavel (traditional hut) so there is no place to isolate anyone with symptoms. Women are deemed the carers in traditional families exposing them to illnesses.
Many forms of chronic illness is wide spread amongst women and girls from marginalised communities and most of those affected seldom have access to health care.
So the threat to these women and girls with underlying health problems is great. High blood pressure, diabetes, auto-immune disease, obesity bears the face of women especially in marginalised communities.
The majority of South Africans who are mired in poverty have compromised immune systems and are therefore very vulnerable to diseases and infections in particular. This is the greatest fear the country faces in this new era of the Corona Virus.
Women are known to lack access to health screening to a far greater degree than men and children and will put their health needs aside to prioritise other family needs. In traditional family structures, the decision for women to access health care does not lie with a woman but with other older members of the family or their partners. It is not unusual for their health care to be dismissed as insignificant.
Access to water
South Africa is facing severe drought resulting in water restrictions. Some areas have no access to water at all and water has to be bought or brought in by road transport to remote communities. This is a problem when promoting hand washing as a prevention strategy. Women in rural communities have to walk long distances with heavy loads to fetch water. So this burden of having to fetch water from informal sources such as rivers and dams is born by women and girls.
They The requirement that hand washing is an important prevention strategy for contracting COVID-19 places an additional burden on the women to cross distances more often and to carry heavier loads of water.
In some urban areas and all information settlements, water is not available. This is a grave concern for health reasons, for prevention and for basic family survival.
Violence against women and girls in times of disasters
Women and girls face an increase in the incidents of gender based and sexual violence in times of disasters. Research has shown that children become more vulnerable to sexual violence when not at school. This is especially so in South Africa where thousands of young children are raped and killed each year. The closure of schools has resulted in thousands of children being in the streets due to the fact that their homes are too small and there no other playing fields, or parks or any other communal spaces which exist for them to play in.
Most families cannot afford child care to ensure the safety of their children. They are therefore at increased risk of predators who can abduct, rape and even kill them. An added problem is that while COVID-19 calls on social isolation as a prevention strategy, unsupervised children and those living in information settlements in confined spaces can easily contract or transmit the virus.
A lack of adult supervision for young children will increase as female headed households are unable to pay for child care.
As men lose their jobs, they return home from urban work centres and in moving from dense urban to rural environment, modes of transmission are created. Such men will be at home for longer periods of time often having lost financial support and tensions are likely to rise as a result. The expectations of men on women to continue to provide food and other support can result in increased levels of domestic violence.
Research has shown that men can use the threat of a pandemic to initiate or increase the physical isolation of women which renders them more vulnerable to abuse.
In addressing the HIV pandemic, it was shown that men are less likely to heed warnings to refrain from harmful behaviour and this poses another risk to women and girls. Men will continue to gather with other men to drink and socialise without a thought of being infected or spreading infection.
Violence against women and mental health concerns
Women generally rely on socialising with other women including having “sister groups” who serve as sounding boards, sources of comfort, inspiration, encouragement, provide guidance, advice and many other important forms of support. Women are used to resorting to these strategies in order to stay strong and grounded. This helps them maintain good mental health.
Isolation is one of the drivers and forms of domestic violence than men use to control women. Women’s vulnerability increases and is exacerbated by a social distancing and isolation strategy. Taking this into account together with the removal of their social support derived from interaction with other women, increased levels of anxiety and depression are inevitable.
The services which MWRI provides is one of the critical support mechanisms that women and girls who experience violence against women have. To this end, when the call came from the President to socially distance ourselves, we grappled with how to continue to providing this critical support but maintaining the isolation. We redesigned the services to be a virtual offering which women will be able to access on several platforms from wherever they are.
The biggest concern at this point in time, is fear. There has been so much media information some real and a good deal “fake news”. This has confused people and fear has crept into the minds and hearts of people. This causes undue worry and concern which has an adverse effect on the mental health of individuals. Women caring for partners, children and the elderly bear the brunt of such concern and often will neglect their own mental health.
If anyone becomes ill, mental health concerns for the sick individual, the carer and the family as a whole increase.
Being in confined spaces or being confined to a particular space/area for long periods of time will cause tensions to rise between people and this can escalate into acts of violence ranging from raised voices, to physical acts of violence, all of which will have an impact on mental health.
Women and children subjected to domestic or sexual violence will experience serious mental health issues including but not limited to depression and suicidal tendencies.
Children who are confined to homes need concerted efforts to reassure them and allay their fears. Additional attention must be given to structuring their time/days and to ensure that they have activities to keep them occupied so that they do not become bored.
• Recognising the seriousness of the corona virus pandemic and the specific gender dimensions, the state including all arms of government needs to recognise and acknowledge the disparities that exist between men and women and ensure that all strategies and programmes have a gender sensitive lens and that they take into account the specific needs of women and girls.
• Companies, small enterprises and households who employ women must be discouraged from ending work contracts. Instead, government should provide a stimulus package that keep women in paid work and earning.
• In the case of job losses, women and female headed households in particular, must be provided with financial support including food packages and grants for household necessities
• Companies who require women to work should provide special transport to prevent them commuting in loaded taxis which increases their risk of infection.
• Child care is a critical challenge to reduce the risk of increased child abuse, abductions, child rape, trafficking etc. Communities can be encouraged to form small units of 5-10 children who can be cared for together.
• Care for the elderly requires support. Communities themselves can be encouraged to relieve the care burden on women by taking on this role. Some kind of rudimentary training must be done with such care givers in order to ensure the safety and protection of those they are caring for.
• Programmes on television should also be aimed at informing adults and children of the corona virus and what they can do to protect themselves. These should be age appropriate and fun while warning them of the dangers that exist.
• A full review of community access to health information in all official languages is critical. Information on the Corona Virus itself must be made easily accessible to rural communities and in information settlements.
• The disabled communities, especially the deaf, will be extremely susceptible since sign language makes use of the hands and face. Information sharing must include braille instruction and social media posting.
• Suggestions on how to navigate the challenges of distances from health facilities is important for testing and reporting on illness or infection.
• A government roll out of critical water and sanitation infrastructure is sorely required to address the serious shortages. Local government needs to be held accountable for lack of the provision of clean water and ensuring that filth and illegal dumping sites are cleared since this becomes an added burden during this pandemic.
• The Corona Virus poses a challenge to the existing pandemic in this country which is violence against women and girls including femicide. Government needs to step up the promised support for services which provide counselling, paralegal services, shelters and health care for the women and girls who will be subjected to domestic and sexual violence. Government must strengthen its partnership with NGO’s and CBO’s by giving them emergency funding to carry out the programmes that provide information, care and support at community level to increase access to critical services for survivors.
• The donor community needs to devise an emergency response to COVID-19 which takes into account the specific challenge that women face and the organisations which support them. This includes recognising the need to support local organisations with flexible funding and they must do away with the instrumentalisation of the pandemic and the work with women. That would just add additional stress to an already stressful situation.
Masimanyane Management Team