Women lack access to Covid-19 information

Women lack access to Covid-19 information

Date: April 30, 2020
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By Moses Mugugunyeki

Harare, 1 May :Oblivious of the dangers of not observing social distancing, a group of women, presumably vegetable vendors, sit under the shade of a makeshift market stall, while a stone’s throw away, another group crowds at the entrance of a supermarket to buy mealie-meal.

This has always been the trend at Huruyadzo shopping centre in the town of Chitungwiza and many other high-density suburbs in Harare since President Emmerson Mnangagwa imposed a lockdown to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) on March 30.

For a first time visitor to Chitungwiza, a populous town, 26km outside the capital Harare, one might come to think that the town was spared from the national lockdown. It’s business as usual.

“To us coronavirus is a disease for people who board aeroplanes… It’s not a disease for us the poor,” claimed Ottilia Garu, one of the women sitting in the shade.

“If it was for cholera, we would have done our best to prevent against it. It’s a common disease here in Chitungwiza and we have the information about cholera on our finger tips.”

Garu said she has no choice, but to come to the shopping centre where she and her colleagues play hide and seek with the police and military, who are enforcing the lockdown measures.

“Honestly, we know nothing much about coronavirus. We don’t have smartphones and we hardly listen to the radio because most of the time, we would be here or dodging the police raids,” she said.

“Poverty drives me out of my house. If l had the money, l would have stayed indoors with my family, listen to the radio and hear what they say about coronavirus.”

Garu’s predicament is faced by a myriad of women across Zimbabwe, especially those in marginalised communities who have no access to basic information about Covid-19.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing them”.

A rights-respecting response to Covid-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.

Gertrude Marufu, who seemed to be most knowledgeable of Covid-19 and the most vocal among the women vendors, said she was relying mostly from information she gets from her husband, who has a smartphone.

She, however, said she was not privy to the up-to-date information obtaining in Zimbabwe on Coronavirus as she relied heavily on a third part.

“My husband said the disease was rampant in South Africa, but relatively low in Zimbabwe. However, we don’t have the latest information because his smartphone has been without data for the past three days,” Marufu said.

Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, the executive director and core founder of Tag a Life International Trust, a girl and women rights group, said access to information is central for women’s empowerment, especially during health disasters.

Mashayamombe’s assertion is buttressed by the 2019 Global Summit of the Open Government Partnership, where states and stakeholders agreed on ensuring women have rights and facilities to access information as a mechanism to overcome gender inequality.

“Women and girls, particularly those in marginalised communities in Zimbabwe have no access to correct information on Covid-19 compared to their male counterparts,” Mashayamombe said.

“Most men have smartphones and interact with colleagues on social media platforms, sharing correct information on Covid-19.”

Mashayamombe said while the right to information was key in spurring development, women face impediments that weaken their ability to fully exercise their basic right.

Her sentiments were also echoed by media expert and gender activist and Chief Executive Officer of the Zimbabwe Gender Commisssion Virginia Muwanigwa who said women play second fiddle to men when it comes to access of information.

“Compared with men, women generally have lower access to information due to household chores and therefore less leisure time, less income to afford smartphones and usually rely on physical interpersonal communication at markets, clinics and church,” Muwanigwa said.

Muwanigwa said traditional and community-based mechanisms such as school children, traditional, religious and community leaders are not functional due to the lockdown, cutting out women who rely mostly on these.

However, there was relief when High Court judge Justice Mafusire on Friday ordered the Health and Child Care ministry as well as the Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services ministry to promote citizens’ access to information pertaining to the Coronavirus.

This followed an urgent chamber application that was filed by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe.

The court ordered that the ministries concerned should publish and disseminate on all available platforms, the daily Covid-19 updates issued by the Ministry of Health, in all the official languages.

Apart from being denied access to basic information on Covid-19, women and girls bear the brunt of travel restrictions during lockdown as they longer access information on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR).

“While we welcome the lockdown, we also feel it would impact negatively on the lives of women and girls, who need access to information on SRHR,” said Ekenia Chifamba, founding director of Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a local child rights organisation.

“We have a number of programmes on SRHR, including Dandaro Ravanasikana, which we have put on hold due to the demands of the lockdown.”

However, Chifamba said they were continuing with other projects like providing sanitary wear to vulnerable girls.

A survey carried by this publication in Harare, Chitungwiza, Ruwa and Epworth showed that sexual and reproductive health services have been side-lined at the expense of Covid-19, yet women and girls continue to require family planning, menstrual health supplies and maternal health care and information.

Public health expert and president Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association Dr Johannes Marisa said it was pity that public health centres were focusing much on Covid-19.

“I have attended to many expecting mothers at my maternal clinic because of the travel restrictions brought by the lockdown,” he said.

“Besides, public hospitals are overwhelmed by this Covid-19 pandemic. However, such services should be provided continuously at public hospitals.”

Harare-based sociologist Yotamu Chirwa said government should not lose sight of the vulnerability of women and girls in the wake of Covid-19.

“Women in most cases are on the frontline during disease outbreaks, hence denying them basic information of the virus is catastrophic,” Chirwa said.

“Women and girls are responsible for nursing the sick family members, which exposes them to greater health risks, hence the need to give them information on the disease.”

During the cholera outbreak that claimed more than 4 000 lives in Zimbabwe in 2008 and outbreak in 2018, women carried much of the burden as they were at the forefront of household prevention and response effort.

UNFPA in a recent Covid-19 guidance document highlighted the need for governments to consider gender dynamics when dealing with the scourge.

“Disease outbreaks affect women and men differently,” says the document.

“Pandemics make existing gender inequalities for women and girls worse, and can impact how they receive treatment and care.”

Local humanitarian organisation Zimbabwe Red Cross Society communications manager Stambuli Kim through their wide network of community-based volunteers and staff, the organisation has rolled out risk communication and community engagement trainings throughout the country.

“Through these sessions, our key volunteers and staff were equipped with the correct and relevant information on what Covid-19 is, how one contracts it, how one can prevent its spread and also what to do when the encounter a suspected case,” Kim said.

These trainings were done across the country, including marginalised and vulnerable communities. After the trainings, the trained volunteers and staff were able to cascade the information to communities.

“In the wake of the national lockdown, we have devised innovative information dissemination initiatives through use of the social media as well as the mainstream media such as newspapers, radio stations and television.”

MISA Zimbabwe director Tabani Moyo said the government should be encouraged by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information’s position on the critical duty of States in times of public health emergencies.

“Coronavirus related information should thus be availed to all citizens despite their location (cognisant of people in rural and marginalised communities), or, economic status (taking into consideration those that cannot afford internet access or the mediums being currently relied on for information on the virus),” Moyo said.

Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa earlier said her ministry would do everything possible to prioritize open communication and transparent reporting on Covid-19.

Moses Mugugunyeki is a journalist from Zimbabwe. This story is part of the GL News sevice , Gender and COVID 19 news series

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