Policy, Gender and Covid19 –Experiences from women hosting extractive resources
Public policies and laws are supposed to serve the interests of citizens, and ensure that their rights are protected and guaranteed by the government of the day. Lack of policies that are responsive to and effectively address the needs of women during periods of crises such as the current Covid-19 pandemic is cause for concern. As of the 8th of May 2020, Zimbabwe’s confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 34 confirmed cases, 9 recoveries and 4 deaths. Government response through the Department of Social Welfare does not address the gendered impacts of Covid-19 nor has the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development issued any statement regarding the plight of women during the lockdown.
During the current Covid-19 induced lockdown, there has been lack of coordinated voices at local and national levels highlighting the plight of women. In most cases, women’s peculiar challenges have been clouded by broader community issues. Women in positions of authority have not stepped up their efforts to defend vulnerable fellow women. At government level, the presence of only two women and the absence of the Minister of Women Affairs in the National Taskforce on Covid19 exposes lack of political will or understanding of the gendered impacts of the pandemic and the national lockdown or both by the government. In areas where food has been distributed, the process has been politicised, leaving out some of the most vulnerable families. For those that miss out on food handouts, women come off worse because in rural areas, they are chiefly responsible for sourcing food for their families. Climate change has weakened women’s capacity to grow sufficient food that can last till the next harvest. This paper flags out policy gaps in government responses to natural disasters in as far as women are concerned. We critique the Civil Protection Act, Chapter 10:06 (1989) as being gender blind and therefore inadequate to protect women during times of disaster. Due to its gender-blindness, the Act may actually be increasing the vulnerability of women as it authorises the deployment of security forces without any guidelines on how to ensure such interventions do no harm to women. The history of civil – military relations in Zimbabwe is littered with human rights violations. This is greatly important in this period of covid-19 when women have a mammoth task of protecting their own health and that of their families, and take on the task of finding food for their families despite movement restrictions.
Impact of Covid19 on the informal sector
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions estimates that unemployment rate in Zimbabwe stood at 90% as of 2017 whilst the International Labour Organization noted that the majority are employed in the informal economy, characterised by low wages, poor working conditions, little or no social security and representation.” Women constitute the majority of informal workers and according to the International Labour Office (ILO) there is a correlation between informality and poverty. Earlier studies by CNRG indicate that in mining areas women subsidize the meagre earnings of their husbands through their unpaid labour and in the case of death of their spouses they take care of themselves and their children through informal work. The Covid19 lockdown has thus closed the only survival channel for women with self accounts.
Despite the government’s promise in the 2020 National Budget to scale up all social protection programmes by March 2020 in order to assist over 7 million people with food aid, not all communities have received the much needed assistance from the state. Only a few households in Arda Transau, Chivi-Sese and Marange have received their monthly portion from the Department of Social Welfare. A group of women interviewed in Arda Transau, a community where relocated families from Marange diamond fields reside, confirmed that the Department of Social Welfare distributed 50kgs of maize to 250 out of 3000 households as of 22nd of April 2020.
There is also a concern with the skyrocketing price of maize meal. Annamore Nyangani, a female vendor from Jinan, Village 6, Arda Transau area, expressed concern on how local shops have increased mealie meal price from ZWD$72 rtgs (about US$1.50) to US$5 per 10kgs, which is beyond the reach of many families. Street vendors trade in local currency and the majority make a profit of less than US$2 per day. A survey by CNRG observed that most of the people who queued to buy mealie meal during the lockdown were women – a development that further exposed them to the Covid-19 virus as no social distancing was observed. In Hwange some women told CNRG they end up selling their bodies in order to obtain food to feed their families, something that exposes them to sexually transmitted infections.
Mining induced displacements increase the vulnerability of women. For instance communities at Arda Transau are yet to receive adequate arable land for their agricultural activities more than 10 year after being relocated from Marange diamond fields. Climate change which has contributed to hunger and malnutrition continues to affect many rural households across Zimbabwe. Wilmar, a small holder farmer aged 50 from ward 29 of Marange is no exception to the plight of millions of women small holder farmers across the country who have to bear the burden of poor productivity due to inadequate rains. Covid-19 lockdown measures have minimised her ability to move around the area to sell her produce and feed her family, given limited transport in the community. These communities were dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.
Gender Based Violence and Covid19 crisis
Research carried out by UNFPA and its partners at the end of April 2020 shows that domestic violence cases are anticipated to increase by 20 per cent in the next three months, Tendai, a female vendor from Chivi-Sese community, an area where Murowa Diamond Company is doing some diamond exploration works, explained how she is suffering emotional abuse at the hands of her husband who is not formally employed. The restrictions imposed by the covid-19 crisis have created tension in her family as income dwindled and she is still expected to fend for the family without her husband’s assistance. Her story is similar to tales of thousands of women across Zimbabwe who suffer in silence as a result of diminishing household income during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Since national lockdown started in March 2020, over 2000 cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) have been recorded across the country by various women’s organisations. Before the lockdown, GBV cases ranged between 200 and 500 cases per month. However, between 19 April and the 1st of May 2020, police in Bikita recorded 72 GBV cases from wards 5,11,19,22, 24 and 30 of Bikita West constituency. Key factors driving the GBV incidences in the said wards include financial mismanagement among couples and arguments among married couples over conjugal rights. However in most instances, given the fact that the courts are closed due to Covid-19 lockdown, police officers encourage couples in dispute to consider resolving their matters amicably.
The current Covid-19 related spike in GBV incidences calls for implementation of policies that protect the rights of women and girls during emergency situations. Community engagement is critical in policy implementation in order to guarantee the safety and security of women and girls in the community. Due to a deep culture of domestic violence rooted in the patriarchal structure of the Zimbabwean society, government must come up with measures for women to get help as quickly as possible during distressing seasons like lockdowns.
Leadership and COVID19 pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed failure by female leadership at national level to be alert to the needs of women during disasters. CNRG notes that the vulnerability of women increases during disaster situations as their social defence mechanisms are destroyed. The burden of care work places a heavy responsibility on women, some of whom are pregnant or are nursing children, which limits their mobility. It is therefore not surprising that women are the face of natural disasters or ultimate victims in times of crises. This vulnerability is often taken advantage of by some of the people deployed to protect them. For instance, CNRG received reports indicating that some women affected by Cyclone Idai were sexually exploited in exchange for food aid. The country needs a vocal female leadership that keeps a close eye on how women are treated during times of disaster. Zimbabwe has several female cabinet ministers and yet none of them has spoken out about the need to prioritise women’s needs in Covid-19 disaster response management and ensuring that women are not victimized under the guise of humanitarianism.
Women political leaders should not abandon their roles as mothers, caregivers, wives, sisters, grandmothers when confronted by a natural disaster or crisis. International organisations such as ActionAid use a women’s rights approach in emergencies in order to empower local women to lead responses, realising that local women know best what their communities need, and are able to get life-saving supplies quickly and fairly to those who need it most.
Tendai Sibanda, a local government councillor in ward 5, Hwange urban area, is an example of how women leadership has the potential of bringing relief and safety to women in the community during times of crises. Sibanda encouraged women to group and pool their funds for purchasing mealie meal in bulk at an affordable price from supermarkets. The arrangement has benefitted 560 families (including civil servants within her ward) so far. This has helped to minimise movements and reduce exposure of women to COVID-19 virus. This initiative can be replicated in other constituencies across the country.
Are women’s concerns addressed by the Civil Protection Act?
One of the reasons why women’s concerns are not prioritised by the National Taskforce on Covid19 headed by Vice President Kembo Mohadi, is related to policy gaps identified in the Civil Protection Act of 1989, which has so far been amended twice, in 1992 and 2001. The objective of the Civil Protection Act is to facilitate the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of national emergency responses to natural disasters and pandemics. The Ministry of Local Government, Urban and Rural Development is responsible for administering the Act.
Composition of the National Civil Protection Committee
Section 4(2) of the Act states that the committee shall comprise of the Director, who shall be the chairman; the Secretary for Health; the Commissioner of Police; the Commanders of the various branches of the Defence Forces; the Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society; the Director of Prisons; the Director of Civil Aviation; a representative of fire brigades established by local authorities appointed by the Minister for such period as the Minister may fix; and three other members appointed by the Minister for their experience in matters of civil protection, who shall hold office for such periods and on such terms and conditions as the Minister may fix. This far, all these positions are held by men and it therefore follows that the committee is mainly staffed with members of the security sector which scares women.
Predictably President Mnangagwa announced a gender-blind national taskforce to drive the Covid-19 government response strategy. Only two out of the 10 members of the taskforce are women. One of the two women, Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri earlier caused a stir when she told a rally that coronavirus was God punishing the West for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe. The thin presence of women in the taskforce is an apt reflection of the lack of representation of women in the decisions of the taskforce.
The absence of Ministries of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) Development, Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare (to cater for the elderly and the disabled communities), and Youth, Sport, Arts and Creation is a cause for concern which should be addressed in future amendments to the Civil Protection Act. Increases of cases of limited access to health centres by women and girls in remote parts of the country during the lockdown could have been foreseen if there was fair representation of women in the taskforce. Further, the National Civil Protection Committee need to be decentralized, depoliticised and demilitarized. It must be civilianized and made approachable by those who need it most. Ministry of Women’s Affairs must have a seat in the Committee. The Gender Commission, National Peace and Reconciliation Commission and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission must each have at least a Commissioner sitting in the Committee. At the very least these commissions must be empowered to exercise more oversight role. The civil society umbrella body, National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations should also be part of the Committee, representing hundreds of civil society organizations which also happen to do a lot of humanitarian work during natural disasters. In essence, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for citizens to push for the review of the Civil Protection Act in order to ensure that concerns of women and girls are integrated in the amended law in preparation for future natural disasters and pandemics that Zimbabwe will have to deal with.
- The Civil Protection Act of 1989 should be amended to ensure it protects women during times of disasters.
- The National Civil Protection Committee should be gender balanced, comprising women appointed from ministries and organizations that advance the cause of women.
- The National Civil Protection Committee should be decentralized to the ward level to ensure effective responses.
- The National Taskforce on Covid-19 and its representatives at provincial and district level should create an inclusive platform where women share experiences and contribute ideas on disaster responses without fear. The Zimbabwe Gender Commission and the Ministry of Women Affairs must be proactive in providing leadership on women’s safety and security whenever a state of disaster is declared. This will ensure that hunger, poverty and domestic violence are foreseen and effective mechanisms to address them are put in place.
- The National Civil Protection Unit should be reformed to curb over militarisation of national response operations in a context where soldiers are associated with intimidation and violence.
- The National Taskforce on Covid19 and the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community and SMEs Development should prioritise and expedite the distribution of government aid to vulnerable women. Distribution of food aid should be done in a transparent and nonpartisan manner, in order to preserve the dignity of women and girls
In essence, women’s multiple roles as breadwinners in their families and active participants in development processes, especially during national disasters and pandemics such as Covid-19, should not be ignored. As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens and lockdown likely to be extended for a longer period, the economic, social and psychological stressors that come with it manifest in gender-based violence which sometimes lead to fatalities. It is therefore the responsibility of government and other stakeholders to ensure that a gendered lens is applied when designing emergency response strategies. It also becomes important ,thus for civil society to come up with innovative ways of ensuring that women in rural areas are able to receive their regular supplies of contraceptives and at the same time , adhering to Covid-19 preventive measures so as to save their lives.
This paper was informed by CNRG contacts in mining-affected communities around Zimbabwe. It is neither exhaustive nor representative of all the challenges women face during natural disasters and natural disaster responses. There is need for further research in areas that have been hit hard by natural disasters and talk to women survivors about their experiences. Also, there is need for an in depth study of government approaches to natural disasters as they pertain to women. Further studies are also needed to examine NGOs working with vulnerable women in disaster situations.
The Civil Protection Act of 1989, (amended in 1992 and 2001)
A CNRG Bikita Community Coordinator, Bikita, Zimbabwe, April 2020
Mrs Sibanda, a local government councillor in Hwange urban, Hwange, Zimbabwe, April 2020
 Reality Check: Are 90% of Zimbabweans unemployed? 3 December 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-42116932
 Women and Men in the Informal Economy. The International Labour Office. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_711798.pdf
 Data was provided by a ,CNRG Community Coordinator for Bikita West, who received the information from a police source
 Mrs Sibanda was interviewed by the CNRG Gender and Extractives Officer and provided these insights.