Reclaiming the gains lost during, and due to, Covid

International Women’s Day 2021 heralds a particularly challenging time for women and girls, writes Dr Lesley Ann Foster, Executive Director of Masimanyane Women's Rights International

The Covid pandemic has battered our world to such an extent that we know that our lives have been irrevocably changed and has rolled back some of the gains we made in the human rights and gender equality field.

South Africa has the most infections and deaths on the African continent. Women suffered the brunt of the pandemic due mainly to the inequality in our country that existed prior to this health disaster.

Some 2,6 million jobs were lost with two out of every three jobs lost being lost to women. Women constitute the bulk of informal traders and are largely found in the travel and hospitality industry which was hard hit by the pandemic.

The lockdown saw children and students working from home and men who lost jobs returned home as well. The burden of care fell largely to women. Women took on the responsibility of caring for the sick, the infected and many who lost family members had the burden of funerals placed at their doorstep. Food insecurity was at its highest levels in spite of the social grants that the state made available to try to mitigate the hunger deepened by the pandemic.

Stepping up

85 women’s groups who are part of a network of rural women’s groups that Masimanyane Women’s Rights International supports, provided leadership at great cost with some lives lost to the pandemic. Yet, women activists and human rights defenders braved the storm of the pandemic to feed people by approaching suppliers to donate food, establishing family gardens and sourcing water. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) rose sharply during Covid due to existing inequality and harsh lock down regulations resulting in isolation from support systems.

Masimanyane Women’s Rights International (MWRI) developed responses that dealt with the structural impediments and providing care and support.

We were cognisant of the inequality in our society and initiated a policy to guide our responses to the pandemic grounded in a gender inequality perspective.

Secondly we addressed the needs of women on the ground by taking our face to face engagements with women and communities onto online platforms to avert the risk of infection. This revealed inequality through digital poverty and illiteracy, a lack of working space at home, limited access to connectivity and data and a lack of smart resources. We developed a structured plan to overcome these obstacles.

Mental health problems emerged early into the Covid pandemic based on fear, anxiety, stress, depression and suicide. We pre-empted this and included mental health protocols for self-care. We advocated for increased mental health support for women through national structures. The rise in deaths prompted us to conduct bereavement and grief counselling to ensure the necessary skills in responding to deaths. When the hunger levels grew, we secured a humanit