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COVID-19: Vulnerability and recovery of women in marginalized mining communities

By Nyasha Dube, Zvishavane

Tsitsi Matumba (36) is a small-scale miner and single mother of two. 

She irks out a living in a small village called Mazvihwa, 20km outside Zvishavane town.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, it took a toll on her livelihood and wellbeing. 

Like many women in the mining communities she found herself wondering about how best to continue working hard to put food on the table and keep her children in school.

The nationwide lockdown halted mining operations, cutting her only source of income and making it hard for her to fulfill her care giving responsibilities.

“The pandemic disrupted our economic and social lives,” says Tsitsi as she sits calmly in her rondavelle kitchen hut which she built using proceeds from her mining activities. 

“I depend on small scale mining for a living but the pandemic changed all that. There was minimum production at the mine and our security as women was compromised. We became vulnerable to mine poachers – people who illegally takeover other people’s mining claims especially when they realise that there is no activity on the claim, ” she says.

“I found myself struggling to pay school fees for my children. I couldn’t take care of myself. I could no longer afford to buy medication for my chronically ill parents as it became extremely expensive and hard to get,” She adds.

In a few weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic, Tsitsi realized that her health was at risk.

“Contraceptives were inaccessible and the health organisations which used to screen us for tuberculosis and other ailments could not continue because of limited movement. We became more vulnerable to Gender Based Violence, intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted infections and HIV because referral pathways were no longer accessible to us,” Tsitsi observes.

More women like Tsitsi found themselves more vulnerable than before. 

For women with disabilities and women caring for persons with disabilities, the pandemic and lockdown was a huge blow.

Female cobbler and vendor from Zvishavane, Vitalis Nyoni, narrated her plight.

“I am a mother of six and I also care for my visually impaired husband. I had to find means of survival when my husband lost his sight back then in 2014. That’s when I started mending shoes because we could no longer depend on my husband. At one point we were surviving on wild fruits. Just as I stood on my feet the pandemic came as a nightmare and disrupted everything.  The full lockdown affected my streams of income as we could not trade. Recovering from that shock has not been easy,” She says.

In order to survive, women like Tsitsi and Vitalis came together to help each other survive the pandemic. 

“We started cooperatives and clubs where we would support each other financially and jointly buy mining equipment, food and other needs. We also got support from mining associations which helped us get exemption letters to travel and trade during the lockdown,” says Tsitsi. 

According to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Zimvac) in the 2021 Rural Livelihoods Assessment Report, most impacts of COVID-19 such as increased Gender Based Violence, poor water and sanitation and poor livelihoods were attributed to restrictive measures.

The report states that 48% of households in the country suffered reduced incomes, whilst 47% households had reduced food sources. Most of these households had women as primary care givers, thereby worsening their care giving burden.

The report also stated that access to GBV victim friendly services was generally low. Women also had limited access to safe water and sanitation.

A report by Open Data Watch (ODW) on Understanding Women’s and Girls’ Vulnerabilities to the COVID-19 pandemic, says  Zimbabwe was identified as being amongst the 26 most vulnerable countries to the pandemic, as women lacked access to adequate health care, suffered low wages and also lacked skills and education needed to cope with the pandemic.

Globally, according to UN Women, the pandemic was likely to push 96 million people into extreme poverty, 47 million of whom are women and girls thereby bringing the number of women and girls aged 25 to 34 living below the poverty datum line to 435 million.

The agency also says globally, 58% of employed women are informally employed and when the pandemic started, they lost an average of 60% of their income. 

An estimated 11 million girls left school thereby widening the education gender gap, and increasing early pregnancies and child marriages.

Medical practitioners also say the pandemic worsened the health and wellbeing of women, most of whom found themselves suffering from mental health related illnesses, STIs and even HIV.

Dr Wallace Hlambelo from Zvishavane District Hospital says the country’s maternal and childcare sector was the most affected by the pandemic.

“There was a spike in home deliveries and maternal deaths as most women could not access health care. Mental health illnesses such as depression worsened, especially depression, and most women resorted to illicit drug abuse and ended up suffering psychotic illnesses or venturing into crime to satisfy their cravings,” Dr Hlambelo said.

He added that there was also an increase in sexual abuse and teen pregnancies.

“Before the pandemic most schools would record 20 cases of teen pregnancies each term, with some of the cases being of girls as young as 13. With the pandemic, the vulnerability of women and girls in mining communities worsened and cases of teen pregnancies increased,” says Dr Hlambelo.

Meanwhile, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are calling for measures to reduce the impact of  future social and economic shocks like COVID-19. 

Millicent Nhutsve the Director of Hands of Hope Trust, a socio-economic empowerment organization for women, appealed for government to set aside social grants for women during times of crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the vulnerability of women because they constitute a greater population, and most of them rely on informal trading. The levels of poverty increased and because of the lack of economic power, many resorted to prostitution,” says Nhutsve

“We appeal to government to set up social grants for women during times of crisis. As CSOs we can also provide food aid to vulnerable household to minimize exploitation of the poor by the privileged. Women’s voices must also be heard as they are the ones who know what they want,” she added.

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