Pay attention to women’s needs in COVID-19 response

Pay attention to women’s needs in COVID-19 response

Date: April 21, 2020
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By Thabani Mpofu,

Bulawayo, 24 April: The Corona Virus 2019 (COVID-19) has challenged the health and social care professionals, health systems and governments around the world like never before in recent history.

So far, it is impossible to know exactly its long-term impact as it seems that the only predictable aspect of the pandemic is that it is unpredictable. This complex situation calls for government, private sector and other organisations to be better prepared and use a gender lens in the crafting and execution of response strategies.

Experiences from Ebola crisis in West Africa show that gender inequalities exacerbate outbreaks, and responses that do not incorporate gender analysis fuel inequalities.

Interestingly, the pandemic coincides with the Beijing Platform for Action Silver Jubilee, which should have been a celebratory time for gender equality globally.

However, COVID-19 will threaten the limited gains made in over the past two decades locally, regionally and internationally if policy-makers do not pay attention to women’s and girls’ needs in the response strategies to the virus.

Most countries, Zimbabwe included, responded to the pandemic by appointing high-powered taskforce teams, enforcing social-distancing, setting up of testing centres, self-isolation for those with mild symptoms, hospitalisation for acute cases, mandatory quarantine in isolation centres for locals returning from abroad, and national lockdown among other response strategies.

While we commend the Zimbabwean government for adopting the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended strategies albeit under very difficult socio-economic conditions, it is crucial to pay attention to the needs of women and girls in the crafting and implementation stages of the response strategies.

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission, which plays the advisory role to national response strategies including monitoring the roll out of programmes and impact assessment from a gender perspective, has called on players involved in COVID-19 to ensure response strategies are gendered.

“The Government, private sector and other service providers who are involved should remain cognisant of the gendered implications in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the response measures.

“Gender expertise should be integrated into response teams that are being deployed to ensure that the needs of women and children are fully considered among those of other social groups,” said Virginia Muwaningwa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission.

It is a fact that disease outbreaks affect women and men, girls and boys differently based on the perceived cultural and societal roles and responsibilities. Pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls and discrimination of other marginalised groups such as persons living with disabilities and those in extreme poverty, worse.

It is therefore of concern that the 11-member Ministerial Taskforce Team – the most powerful decision-making body – appointed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa only has two women (18%).

While acknowledging that the selection is influenced by the limited representation of women in cabinet, gender activists are concerned that this means there is neither gender balance nor gender lens in COVID-19 decision-making in contravention of the provisions of the Constitution and principles of the National Gender Policy.

“This means that there are few people to reflect on the gender impact of COVID-19. I wonder whether these two women are able to raise their voices enough to challenge nine men when it comes to issues of gender impact of the virus. There is indeed a need for balancing this taskforce to ensure we have enough women in the decision-making body,” noted Sibusisiwe Bhebhe, the Founder and Director of Amakhosikazi Media.

The National Health Strategy for Zimbabwe 2016-2020 emphasises equity and quality health for all in conformity with the Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG 3) that aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, bringing to the fore the need to apply a gender analysis into national response strategies to the pandemic.

We must heed the warning by the 2019 Global Health 50/50 report that equity issues are only meaningfully integrated into emergency responses when women and marginalised groups are able to participate in decision-making.

The Director of Emthonjeni Women’s Forum, Sikhangezile Mathambo, challenged the media to be responsible in its reporting of COVID-19. “The media have a responsibility to ensure that voices reporting diverse perspectives are included in reporting and broadcasting to influence policy responses,” said Mathambo.

WHO identified people most at risk of COVID-19 infection as those in contact and those who care for COVID-19 patients, meaning health workers are at risk of infection. Research has shown that 70% of workers in health and social care locally, regionally and internationally are women, meaning they are at an increased risk.

Women, as the majority frontline care givers at work and home, are likely to work long hours during the pandemic period, resulting in a lot of physical, emotional and psychological strain on them. During and after the pandemic health and social care workers are likely to be stigmatised hence the need to pay attention to women’s needs.

As health systems, particularly weak ones like Zimbabwe’s, are overwhelmed, women bear the burden of caring for sick family members that hospitals cannot admit, thus increasing women’s risk of exposure to the virus.

In the Zimbabwean context, the situation is even compounded by other socio-economic factors, for example, household care responsibility is complicated by water shortages experienced across most urban areas and long queues for basic commodities like mealie-meal. This heightens the risk of contracting the virus, especially for women. Furthermore, with schools closed, women have the double-burden of looking after children.

A few months ago, we applauded the government for allocating resources for the provision of free sanitary pads to rural schoolgirls. We pray that the facility continues and be extended to all women and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Food provision must not overshadow access to sanitary wear.

The government, private sector and other interested organisations must apply gender analysis in each of the response strategies to ensure women’s and girls’ inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection is considered.

This is not only important, but it is necessary to saving lives especially given that little information is known about the long-term impact of COVID-19. Gender activists also raised concern on some quarantine facilities, which they labelled as gender insensitive.

“Some of our quarantine facilities where people are expected to share bathrooms and toilets with no running water are not gender friendly. I am trying to imagine how women who are menstruating, pregnant or have babies are able to live for 14-21 days in such conditions,” said Bhebhe stressing the need to consider all these issues in crafting response strategies.

Mathambo observed that a number of gender issues are either being ignored or reproduced and reinforced if the policy makers do not pay attention to women’s and girls’ needs.

“The government must provide dignity kits for women especially those returning home facing mandatory quarantine for 14-21 days. There is also a need to maintain an adequate stock of menstrual hygiene products at healthcare and community facilities,” advised Mathambo.

The 21-day lockdown period, which has been further extended by 14 more days, seems to be one of the major solutions to flatten the infection curve at least judging by results from China and other countries.

But there is a high risk that all forms of Gender Based Violence (GBV) will be triggered if necessary measures including access to GBV services during the lockdown period are not incorporated into the response strategies. The Zimbabwe Gender Commission noted the possibility of an increase in GBV cases.

“While it is a bit too early to form conclusive evidence-based opinion, anecdotal evidence exists on GBV and domestic violence, food insecurity, increased reproductive chores to cater for increased family needs under lockdown, inadequate attention to balance between movement of people and reality of looking for income, insufficient resources for social protection and destruction of informal economy thereby affecting livelihoods of women,” said Muwaningwa.

Perhaps, the case of an woman in Emganwini suburb in Bulawayo who murdered her husband allegedly for embarrassing her during an argument over a television remote control might just be a tip of an ice bag. Concerted efforts must be made to identify shelter options within communities for victims of GBV since restricted movements may make it difficult for survivors to access already existing safe houses.

“Information about GBV, how to access resources and services is not being publicised,” noted Mathambo.

As scientists continue to search for scientific and technical solutions to the pandemic, the fact remains that women, as the majority frontline health and social care workers, are the backbone of COVID-19 battle. Every response strategy that recognises this will be the more impactful for it.

Thabani Mpofu is the chairperson of the Journalism and Media Studies department at the National University of Science and Technology. This article is part of the GL News Service Gender and COVID-19 news series.



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