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Coronavirus: African women bear bigger brunt of the pandemic

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Wednesday, 3 June 2020 17:07

Virus Outbreak South Africa
Women carrying their children lineup to receive vegetables from the Jan Hofmeyer community services in the Vrededorp neighborhood of Johannesburg Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Mandatory lockdowns put in place by governments to curb the spread of the coronavirus have trapped many in their homes with their abusers, leaving them isolated from the people and resources they usually are able to turn to for help.

Across Africa, a study has shown that 44% of women are victims of intimate-partner violence. That figure has inevitably grown during the imposed lockdowns across many countries on the continent.

During the first week of lockdown for South Africa, police received 2,320 reports of gender-based violence; a figure that’s 37% higher than usual. In Zimbabwe, one helpline says the number of abuse cases had tripled.

Epidemics always expose inequalities in society, including those of race and gender.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Now is the time to build a future for Africa’s informal workers

In this context of this global pandemic, women are the ones suffering more from the effects of the virus than their male counterparts.

Particularities with women

Being subjected to increased domestic violence is not the only problem women are facing now:

  • Studies by the UN have shown that it is ‘women who do most of the informal cross-border trade.’ Therefore, as complete or partial closures of borders were ordered by governments in order to contain the spread of the virus, more women than men lost their ability to make money.
  • Schools across the continent have been closed, and when they reopen, it is likely that many girls will never return. Instead, they will probably be forced into marriage, or trafficked. A 2015 report by the Human Rights Watch showed that, ‘in sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering 40 percent of girls marry before age 18, and African countries account for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.’ In a climate where many parents are unable to make as much money as they used to, selling their daughters will seem like a viable option to make money, and marrying them off will reduce the number of mouths to feed in the household. Education for girls has yet to be a priority for many, so it is unlikely that many girls will survive this long break in their education.
  • With both children and husbands being at home all the time, women are spending even more time in unpaid care and domestic work. Even for women in corporate structures, they suddenly have the additional task of taking care of children and husbands at home, as well as continuing on with their jobs.
  • Maternal health is now suffering given most health efforts are focused on those affected by the virus.

Women in the informal sector

Being aware that many women have lost their livelihoods due to borders being shut, we must also think about the long-term issues faced by women in this sector:

  • “Many women have entered the informal economy due to a lack of other opportunities for them,” says Olabisi Yussuf in her paper ‘Gender Dimensions of Informal Cross Border Trade in West-African Sub-Region (ECOWAS) Borders. If they trade across countries, they have to spend large amounts of time away from their families. Equal opportunities being made available for women in the formal sphere is necessary.
  • In the aforementioned paper, obstacles faced by women in this sphere are mentioned, ranging from “attitude of uniformed personnel, to language barriers, sexual harassment, fluctuating exchange rate, vulnerability to HIV/AIDs and inadequate transport facilities.” It is clear that women have to work harder for their livelihoods, and the alarming rate of demanding sexual favours in return for employment needs to be addressed.

Acceleration of digitisation is necessary in Africa, so children can learn from home. As there is a wide problem of digitisation on the continent, innovative methods can be used in the meantime. For example, in Kaduna State in Nigeria, radios have been used to teach senior secondary school children during the COVID-19 lockdown, as internet access is scarce.

READ MORE Coronavirus is triggering deep digital change in African fintech

In the same vein, such innovative methods of education must also underscore the necessity of gender equality, such as dividing domestic work in the home and the respect of women in the workforce.

Bottom line: The coronavirus pandemic has affected many, across all rungs of society, but women are particularly more touched by it than men.

The virus has magnified many of the problems women across Africa deal with on a daily basis, both at home and outside. As many countries prepare to tackle lingering problems made evident during the health crisis in the post-COVID-19 era, it would also be the perfect opportunity for them to ensure that women are rightly given their place alongside their male counterparts both at home and in the workplace.

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