Covid-19 reverses gender equality gains

The Covid-19 pandemic’s negative effects have widened the gender gap and restructured gender roles, with women and girls the hardest hit.

In countries with weaker social protection and health systems such as Zimbabwe, where the informal sector accounts for a larger share of the overall economy, Covid-19 has exacerbated women suffering.

As such women feel Covid-19 has reversed almost 40 years of progress made in asserting themselves as equals to men in society.

For Mary Ndlovu, 45, a nurse, has had to put in more hours at work and at home as well as gather courage she didn’t know she had. 

“This is like a war where the majority of fighters are women. When Covid-19 arrived everyone was really scared and didn’t know what to do. As a nurse I would leave home for work and my 16-year-old daughter would pray that I don’t bring the virus home. My husband even suggested we sleep in different bedrooms. That alone proved to me that being a woman in situations like this is hard,” she said.

On Tuesday, information and broadcasting services minister Monica Mutsvangwa said since the outbreak 4 008 health care workers have been infected with the virus. There have been 18 deaths. With the majority of health workers being women (70%) attitude towards them changed in society.

One Bulawayo nurse who tested positive to the virus in April last year, suffered a lot of stigma to the extent that she publicly shamed for recklessly spreading the virus.

Still suffering from stigmatisation she told CITE, on condition of not being named, that the episode took a toll on her mental state.

“You think of killing yourself rather than wait for people to kill you because they think you are being reckless and you don’t want to die alone. No one cares about you at that point and I haven’t seen anyone talking about the mental stress that one goes through under such situations,” she said.

During the first wave of infections, health workers went on numerous strikes because of poor pay and lack of protective clothing.

But Ndlovu who is a nursing manager by law couldn’t strike. Instead, she had to put in long hours and that also meant the same at home.

“I would work from 8AM to 7PM because there were few of us. Then you have schools closed and as a mother I am forced to be the one doing online schooling for my primary school going children. They are in different grades so that means I have two sessions per child. It’s tiring and that leaves little time for me to rest or do things for myself,” she said.

Sherina Phiri, 36, a vegetable vendor’s life turned upside down when she realised that with the lockdown in place she had no choice but turn to her abusive ex-husband for money.

“The market was closed. I couldn’t even sell by my house gate without risking arrest from the police. Moreover, vegetables are perishable and you can’t keep them in store for more than a week. I had one way out, pleading for child support from a husband I had not had contact with for three years. Surprisingly he understood my plight but for him, it meant that he had regained control over me. Instead of giving me money, he asked for a grocery list.

“He would even make sexual advances because I had no power. Imagine going back to jail because it’s safer than out there? That was my situation,” she said.

The Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network say, “There are so many long term effects of the pandemic on women due to the nature of the role that they play in the community.”

Last week the government said at least 4 959 girls of school-going age fell pregnant and about 1 174 cases of child marriages were recorded in a space of a month from January to February this year- during the recently relaxed Covid-19 lockdown.

On the matter, women affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni said, “They (girls) have lost opportunities and have also become vulnerable to other forms of violence, assault, which include economic and emotional abuse.”

The pregnancies and child marriages translate to aborted hopes and dreams for the affected. 

“Despite that, there’s now a law that keeps a pregnant girl in school, the demands of pregnancy such as cravings, morning sickness and the mental stress as well as stigmatisation will affect one’s performance. The scary fact that the figures were recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic’s lockdown period indicate that lockdowns are bad for women,” said Hope Tshuma, a gender activist.

But for Sandra (not her real name) she has reoccupied a corner in a red light zone in Bulawayo.

She was last a “working girl” in 2017 aged 16. Now aged 20 she has to reorient herself in the tough world of prostitution.

“I had turned my life around. I had a decent job as a maid in one of the plush suburbs. I earned around US$100 because the white family I worked for owns a company. But when they shut down it meant they also had to cut costs. One day they woke up and said their teenage children can clean after themselves and do chores. I looked for other housekeeping jobs but failed to find one that pays even half of what I used to get,” she said.

She added:“Now I am putting up with men who pay me US$5 for sex and then insult me afterwards. It hurts but I have no option.”

But there are also success stories in the rough terrain. Janet (not her real name) a Shebeen Queen prides herself as one such.

“My husband was laid off at work. We don’t even know he will return. The only way was for me to break the rules. My shebeen is popular and we are managing to eat and save more than when he was working and I was just doing nothing. Now he’s doing nothing and I’m the one fending for us. I know what I’m doing is illegal but should I die of hunger and fail to send children to school? 

“Lockdowns benefit the rich. They can go and drink in hotels but the men in our communities have nowhere to go. I found a gap and I might as well continue after the pandemic,” she said. 

She added that she would rather be called names than to feel the pain of suffering in poverty.

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