Women hard hit by Covid-19

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The deadly Covid-19 has added to the burden women in Zimbabwe already carry owing to a multitude of structural inequalities that have moved women to the periphery of economic activities. Structural violence against women has pushed women to engage in dangerous and harmful practices which place them at the frontline of any crisis just to survive. Last week, the state owned newspaper, The Herald, reported that a woman in Mhangura was attacked and killed together with her baby strapped on her back, by a crocodile whilst fetching water for watering her garden. The woman died while fending for her family, a role that has been systematically assigned to women by capitalism which exploits cheap labour of men and the mines and plantations across the country. This week another woman made headlines for bravely pursuing a crocodile into the river to rescue her child who had been snatched by the reptile whilst she was fishing.  These stories flag up the hazardous nature of women’s unpaid and unrecognized labour in Zimbabwe and the region which continues despite the national lockdown announced by the government.

Women are already at the receiving end of climate change. The prevailing climate crisis is affecting the health, safety and security of families, especially in already vulnerable rural communities, thus leaving women even more vulnerable to pandemics, droughts, hunger, cyclones and floods. Government and humanitarian NGOs interventions in these disaster situations have often added to the misery of women through sexual exploitation in exchange for food and favours. In the case of Zimbabwe, government assistance programs are also heavily politicized as beneficiaries are chosen along political party lines. Recurrent El Nino and La Nina induced droughts have also weakened rural women’s capacity to grow food and keep livestock, leaving them at the mercy of those who have power over food distribution. 

Zimbabwe’s Civil Protection Act (Ch 10:06) of 1989 which is invoked in a state of disaster, does not offer women protection from abuse in the course of being rescued. It does not have grievance reporting mechanisms in case people’s rights are violated by those distributing humanitarian aid. Politicization of aid in Zimbabwe also greatly disadvantages women in emergency situations.

This briefing is not exhaustive of the effects of Covid 19 and the national lockdown on women. It is essential that a more detailed gendered analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown be done to establish the effects on women and how they are responding to the challenge.

The broader economic impact of shutdown on women

The lockdown has negatively impacted on women’s ability to look after their families. This is evident in communities affected by extractive industries where Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) operates. The lockdown has restricted women’s ability to move freely and earn a living, since most of them are informal traders relying on vending and cross border trading. The measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus, put into effect through Statutory 83/2020, have made it difficult for women to access cash to purchase basic commodities. With the closure of the black market and erratic changes in the electronic money transfer systems such as Ecocash and One Money, women have been failing to access funds to meet the basic needs for their families. Most retailers and informal traders charge higher prices for ecocash payments even though government hasn’t differentiated the rates between bond notes and ecocash.

Further, women risk contracting coronavirus as they wait in long queues to buy mealie meal and other basic food commodities. Evidence from Lupane shows that women make up the majority in these queues, yet the shops do not have hand sanitizers and lack the capacity to promote or enforce social distancing. In instances where they queue with men, women are exposed to physical and sexual harassment as they are shoved and fondled.  Law enforcement agents have not taken any steps to protect women in the queues.

The capacity of women to identify alternative livelihood options in order to look after their families has been inhibited due to the lockdown that has limited women’s movement to be involved in income generating initiatives. This predicament has the negative effect of increasing incidences of gender-based violence in the home, with cases having been cited of late in Lupane. Bikita, ward 11, has so far received 14 cases of gender-based violence since the onset of lockdown, which highlights the negative impact of the lockdown on women’s safety and security in the home and the community.

The government needs to identify strategies that allow women in the informal sector to continue conducting their businesses, while taking precautionary measures against contracting and spreading coronavirus to others.

The impact of Covid19 on women’s rights

The shutdown has negatively impacted on women’s ability to access vital reproductive health services from local health care centres. This will likely lead to an increase of unplanned pregnancies in the aftermath of Covid19. Pregnant women are not getting adequate ante-natal care because of non-availability of public transport and also reluctance by poorly equipped health care workers to attend to any patients for fear of being exposed to the virus. This is in violation of the revised National Gender Policy (2013 to 2017) that support efforts to develop relevant and robust national policies and strategies for addressing high levels of maternal, infant and child mortality[2].  Furthermore, women’s right to health is compromised within heath centre environment where health care workers are potential sources of coronavirus due to lack protective clothing and detergents. The updates by the Ministry of health and Child Care show that so far, in Zimbabwe, two health workers from Bulawayo have contracted the virus and were attending to patients until the day they were diagnosed positive with Covid-19. In Marange, the only support that health care workers are providing to the community is provision of basic information on practising personal hygiene in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Bill of Rights as enshrined in Chapter 4 (2 and 3) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe (2013) endeavours to protect the rights of every citizen, regardless of social status[1]. It therefore, entails that in this crisis, women’s rights are to be protected and respected by the government and other people.  Women in communities affected by extractive industries have endured violation of their basic rights that encompass the right to water, food, health and freedom of movement. Women in Hwange are forced by circumstances to defy the lockdown as they search for water. In some places like Makwika, Madumabisa and Lwendulu scores of families share a single toilet, bathroom and tap. 

The state therefore, should expedite the distribution of protective clothing for health care workers across Zimbabwe to ensure they are protected from the virus and do not spread it to patients.

Women artisanal miners’ plight during the lockdown

Women artisanal miners in Penhalonga, a gold mining community located 20 kilometres north east of Mutare have sustained their families on artisanal mining for many years. About 90% of women in that area are artisanal miners. The lockdown has forced women artisanal miners to depend on food support from government, though the selection of beneficiaries of the government support is politically controlled.  

Women artisanal miners are bearing the effects of the lockdown as their male counterparts are able to work at night. Women are afraid to work at night due to weak security in the area. Thus women artisanal miners in Penhalonga now resort to engage in alternative economic activities which include working in other people’s fields for a wage of maize grain.

The price fluctuation of the gold extracted at different sites has a negative impact on women artisanal miners, the majority being breadwinners are forced to accept the stipulated price that Fidelity Printers would have set.

The impact of Covid19 on women living with HIV

Women living with HIV are not spared from the lockdown as they fail to travel to the nearest health centres to receive their treatment, due to the lockdown restrictions on movement. Unavailability of public transport in remote areas has forced some to default on their treatment. In Bikita, some women living with HIV are resorting to walking long distances to get their Anti Retrovirus drugs. Bikita, ward 11, has 641 women living with HIV who collect their medication on a regular basis at  Marozva Clinic (which lies between wards 11, 10 ,19 and 24) Due to the national lockdown, these women are facing difficulties  to access the basic treatment on time[3]. In Gweru, women living with HIV have been informed by the health centres to collect their anti-retro viral treatment (ARVs) from only two health centres (Senga and Totonga), on specific dates because  health personnel in other clinics have been moved to  main Gweru health centres in response  to COVID19 .

The shutdown directive violates the right to privacy and dehumanises women living with HIV, as they are compelled to reveal their medical conditions to the police manning roadblocks, to be allowed passage to health centres to collect medication.

The ability for HIV support networks to gather and receive the much needed psychosocial support from health centres has been affected by the lockdown. This result in increased stress and other psychosocial effects on women living with HIV, as observed among women in the timber logging affected communities in Lupane. A community monitor told CNRG the psychosocial effects could manifest in the form of stress induced mental disorders, sicknesses and loss of concentration among women living with HIV.

It is therefore important for the relevant government ministry and stakeholders to expedite their response efforts to ensure that women living with HIV have continuous and uninterrupted access to ARVs.

The plight of women with disabilities in the face of Covid-19

Women with disabilities’ burdens have increased due to the impact of Covid19 pandemic. Lack of access to disability friendly information on coronavirus are some of the concerns that they have to grapple with on a daily basis. For instance, in Bikita, wards 11 and 24, 40% of people with disabilities are women who used to earn a living through selling fast foods such as burgers. The lockdown does not allow them to conduct their businesses to sustain their livelihoods, and they have not been receiving any support from the government. However, Section 83 of the Zimbabwean constitution stipulates that people with disabilities are to be protected by the state from exploitation and abuse, and the state should create an environment that will enable them to become self-reliant[4].

Women with disabilities in Arda Transau have negatively been impacted by the Covid-19 shutdown as they are no longer able to participate in physiotherapy rehabilitation exercises which they used to do prior to coronavirus outbreak.

The government needs to provide adequate support for women with disabilities during this period, including provision of psychosocial support services so that women with disabilities are able to cope during this crisis.

Access to Justice for women in communities affected by mining in light of the lockdown

Whilst appreciating government efforts in ensuring that the health of Zimbabweans is preserved, there are loopholes in the lockdown measures, with reference to provision of alternative access to justice mechanisms for survivors of gender-based violence. The Covid19 pandemic has caused a spike in gender based violence and created a vacuum where perpetrators will not be held accountable. Due to the fact that citizens are only allowed to move within a 5 kilometre radius, women in Arda Transau and Marange are facing challenges in reporting cases of gender based violence to the local police station. Women are forced to stay with their abusers and wait to report their cases after the lockdown period and by then most would have been persuaded by family and friends to forgive and bury the hatchet. In addition, the courts of law are also closed during this period and are only attending to ‘urgent issues’

Efforts to get comments from the National Spokesperson for Zimbabwe Republic Police on the current statistics and mechanisms to address gender-based violence during this period were in vain. The relevant government ministries must ensure that women are able to report cases of gender based violence to the police as soon as the crime has been committed. Safe houses for survivors of gender-based violence must be prioritised and decentralised across Zimbabwe during this crisis. Women require healing from coronavirus and GBV.

Intersection of women’s struggles with climate crisis, human – wildlife conflict and COVID-19

The impact of droughts in rural Zimbabwe has a negative impact on women’s ability to secure food for their families as well as sustaining their livelihoods. Failure to produce sufficient quantities of food has driven women to the periphery of the rural economy as they are forced to sell anything that is sellable and consumable. At Arda Transau CNRG noted that the displaced Marange women now survive by cutting and selling thatching grass and firewood which they gather in neighboring villages under Chief Zimunya. If caught the women are penalised, usually by way of working in the fields of the Village Head or the Chief. There are high chances some are exposed to sexual exploitation which they never report to preserve their dignity and save their families.  Covid-19 has further exposed women to all forms of violence and victimization. This takes place in a context where women are forced to travel to nearby local shops to secure food for their families.

The government needs to take into account the climate change effects and geographical realities across Zimbabwe by adjusting its mitigation efforts to ensure that women do not contract or transmit coronavirus whilst searching for food.

The state’s response to COVID-19

The government through the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), has encouraged women across Zimbabwe who are actively engaged in SMEs to register their names so that they receive support from the government. Whilst this is a noble idea, it remains to be seen whether transparency and accountability in the selection of beneficiaries will be upheld. Furthermore, not all women engaged in the informal sector are registered in the official SME structures. This implies that those not affiliated to the SME structures will be left out of the selection criteria.

Zimbabwe is now largely an informal economy. The shutdown has impacted women’s ability to move around and engage in buying and selling of goods in order to earn a living. In Chivi, women told CNRG that they will most likely die of hunger before Coronavirus sets in to harvet the remnant as they can’t continue with their informal businesses which enables them to feed from hand to mouth.[5]

Non state actors including organizations such as Goal Zimbabwe have continued supporting marginalised communities where they have been distributing basic food commodities for women-led household communities (including women with disabilities and those looking after children with disabilities) in ward 29 and 30 of Marange. The traditional leadership in communities affected by extractive industries continues to encourage locals to practise safe hygiene by washing hands with clean water and soap, maintain at least a metre of social distance and staying at home, as stipulated in the COVID-19 hygiene guidelines.

Efforts to reduce the spreading of coronavirus in the community without violating women’s rights might seem to be an impossible task. However, through collective effort between the state and non-state actors, the burden that women carry in the community will be lessened

[1]The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe

[2] National Gender Policy(2013-2017)

[3] Data extracted from a local clinic in Bikita, where CNRG community monitors engage with the local health officials.

[4] The Constitution of Zimbabwe, Section 83, 2013

[5] This is the current trend across the country, women  in the informal sector have to make hard decisions, whether to watch their children die of hunger  or  risk being arrested by the police whilst trying to make ends meet through vending https://www.openparly.co.zw/crafty-informal-traders-employ-spies-in-a-bid-to-duck-lockdown-enforcers/

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