COVID-19: Women’s Needs Must be at the Centre of Response and Recovery Plans

Written by Wamweru Imaya Women rights and Youth Specialist.

With the increased global panic, loss, and grief as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a video, many might have watched with absolute disbelief! In my country, Daily Nation says “Kakamega traders protested the closure of a street market due to CoronaVirus,”

One may wonder, do they not realise just how serious the pandemic is or don’t they read news and see just how much chaos CoronaVirus has caused? At first, I thought, yeah, they probably live in villages, stuck far away from the realities of what is happening in the rest of the world, with a new health monster, CoronaVirus, testing the sharpest of scientific brains and causing unwarranted pain and anguish for many a family, status quo aside. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was a free citizen, traversing multiple countries, with many plans for what  I thought to be a very promising year 2020.Then boom! CoronaVirus turned everything around….and now as I write this, I know for sure, I may not be able to see my kin, at least in months, as Kenya Airways cancels all international flights.

But on a second glance, I realise that actually these traders are women, or at least the video shows a majority of women “traders” holding trays of groceries, protesting the closure of a market. Kenya has confirmed 28 COVID-19 cases, news that has swept the entire country with fear and panic. The perceived defiance by these women traders therefore is not only shocking, but for many of us would easily pass as “ignorance by women who want to put the lives of our  countrymen and women at the frontline.”

This face of defiance, in the face of pain, loss, and possible death however, must not be interpreted as sheer ignorance!
Women in many developing nations are breadwinners, often working in the low income sectors, like street markets, where many are petty traders and vendors of food stuff, second-hand clothes, and heaven knows what else! With many poor broken families and single-parent households as a result of years of communities weighed down by disease outbreaks, civil wars, terrorism, and sheer unfortunate life-loss to weak health systems, women increasingly become the face of their families, as bread winners, struggling to fend for their own children and other dependents. That in Kakamega, it is women “traders” who were protesting the closure of this market, all the more showing why.

In communities across the world, women carry the crucial yet heavy burden of caregivers. As countries including Kenya move to close schools, women especially in marginalised areas are under pressure to do more and feed their families as school feeding programmes- which often supplement the lack of food at home- are closed. And because no one knows how long this period will stretch, many mothers can be forgiven for wanting to continue grocery vending in the street markets, despite how much health danger this in return puts them and their loved ones. The risk increases further because, according to WHO’s Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 countries “Women form 70% of workers in the health and social sector”. At the frontline of the fight against CoronaVirus are nurses, nutritionists, mental health practitioners, hospital attendants, cooks and cleaners. These are mostly women and are often underpaid -”across the world, women are paid 16% less than men on average, and the pay gap is as much as 35% in some countries” while in the health sector alone “an average gender pay gap of around 28% exists in the health workforce. Once occupation and working hours are accounted for, the gender pay gap is 11%)-WHO Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 countries.

At home, these women are the number one caregivers, to their immediate family members as well as their communities. One cannot help but picture the image of a nurse at the frontline of a coronavirus fight during the day, and a mother to her sweet little baby at night! It is true, we cannot even start to imagine how much of a risk this poses to loved ones, yet she has to make the hard choice between her day job and a commitment to protecting her loved ones. Indeed, it is the reason why a second video of women, in Nyeri, Kenya, protesting the closure of yet another market makes even more sense – Daily Nation “Nyeri small scale traders protest directive to close business over COVID-19.”

COVID-19: Women’s Needs Must be at the Centre of Response and Recovery PlansThe gender differential impact of COVID-19 is even more stark when we consider constrained health resources, particularly in developing countries. Resources – financial, medical, and even health facilities – are increasingly being diverted to address this global emergency. As the virus continues to gather pace and spread widely, resources that had been set-aside for maternal healthcare are likely to be diverted towards response efforts, while in some cases, expectant mothers will likely be told to keep off hospitals to reduce their risk of exposure to infection. Already, in some countries, women’s access to often few and distant healthcare facilities has been complicated by quarantine measures, which have reduced movement and slowed down transportation. As some women make the hard choice of staying at home during this quarantine period, the demand for pre and post-natal healthcare services, as well as contraceptives is likely to be unmet by constrained resources and movement.

Quarantine measures, schools closure, loss of paid jobs, and the exposure to CoronaVirus infection is equally likely to increase emotional pressure and anxiety, leading to domestic violence. In difficult times such as these, where families have to make difficult economic and health decisions, tension and disagreements are likely to flare up, with incidents of violence and divorce highly likely. If the 2015 Ebola outbreak reports in West Africa are anything to go by, UNITED NATIONS’ (Thomson Reuters Foundation) mentioned: “The Ebola epidemic in West Africa exacerbated violence against women and rolled back access to reproductive healthcare in the region.” Further, in Guinea, data indicated a 4.5 percent increase in cases of gender-based violence since the epidemic including twice as many rapes, according to Sanaba Kaba, the Country’s Minister of Social Action, Women and Children, during a panel at the United Nations 59th Commission on the Status of Women.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa exacerbated violence against women and rolled back access to reproductive healthcare in the region.

Whichever way we look at it, during emergencies such as these, women bear the brunt of it all, albeit in different ways, but mainly owing to their role as caregivers in our society. Putting them at the center of key decision-making on response plans, in leadership, at the cash-box, and even in the field, is something we cannot wish away. To protect their health we must prioritise, if we are to adequately respond and eventually slowdown the rate of COVID-19’s spread. This would mean ensuring that our frontline soldiers, doctors, nurses, hospital attendants, among others, are adequately protected by giving them all the health protection gear necessary. Equally, we must consider their increased vulnerability during these difficult times and provide emotional support, during and after this period, as many are likely to be affected mentally, the result which would replicate on children’s wellbeing. Security forces must also adopt more pro-active measures to respond to distress calls, with a renewed commitment to giving victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence a fair-hearing. Truth is, we may not have much luxury of asking victims of sexual abuse to go for those “intrusive medical reports” that legal officers need from us to pin down perpetrators!

Economically, however, governments and business owners must ensure female employees are especially supported during these difficult times, because many are likely to lose jobs, even if they are the sole-breadwinners. In the same measure, as governments and other stakeholders begin to put in place measures to buffer their economies, as well as plan for recovery post-COVID-19, we must not forget the women “traders” of Kakamega and Nyeri, among many other women-enterprise owners, who are going to close down their businesses and lose their meagre capital and livelihood as a result. We must, therefore, commit a specific amount of resources towards helping our mothers revive their micro and small businesses, a majority which actually fuel our economies.

The fight against CoronaVirus is far from being won, as infections around the world continue rising with every second that passes. The socio-economic and health risks rise even higher with every new infection, as more and more women continue to fight at the frontline, be it in feeding their nation or attending to the infected. It is only fair then, that in our thoughts and actions, institutions and all people really, put women at the center. Our commitment to protecting and upholding the rights of women, as human rights, must be seen and felt, now more than ever.

For My Sister #IwillStayAtHome #FlattenTheCurve #SupportCareWorkers #COVID-19


Main Image: Yaayaa Diallo from Pixabay

Image 2: Gordon Turibamwe from Pixabay


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