Measles outbreak: Challenges and implications on the future of girls and women in mining communities

By Nyasha Dube and Takudzwa Mahove

DISEASE outbreaks disproportionately affect women and girls, as they are usually the ones providing informal care work to their families.

The burden of unpaid care work increases because of financial constraints and limited access to professional services, and women and girls often find themselves vulnerable to contracting diseases when caring for their sick relatives.

The challenges and implications of disease outbreaks worsen for women in marginalized mining communities because of the resource curse, as these communities are underdeveloped due to resource leakages and illicit financial flows.

Girls drop out of school and women have to walk long distances to access health care and all this has psychological and socioeconomic impacts on their livelihoods.

Since April 10th, 2022 Zimbabwe has been battling a measles outbreak which authorities say was first recorded in Manicaland province’s Mutasa District. By September 5th, 2022, 6 444 Cases had been recorded, and deaths stood at an alarming 698. Cases were reported from Midlands, Manicaland, Mashonaland East, Chitungwiza, Harare, and Mashonaland West.

The outbreak has hurt the livelihood of women and girls in the Midlands Province’s Zvishavane and Mberengwa mining districts with women having to take a break from being productive in the mines to focus on the health of the children, similarly, girls are missing school to take care of their siblings who in some cases are not allowed to seek medical assistance by church doctrine.

Women, being a diverse group, are affected in different ways. For Idzai Mutandabare, a woman with a disability, there have always been barriers to accessing health care but outbreaks worsen the barriers.

“We always face challenges in accessing health care. This time around health workers initiated a door-to-door vaccination campaign to assist us. However, there are anti-vaccine religious groups who hide their children. This affects children with disabilities as they are denied their rights to health care yet they are more vulnerable,” she says.

Elderly women also carry the burden of gender inequity in caregiving responsibilities.

“We have to wake up very early and walk a long distance to the clinic which is in another ward. As an elderly woman, I have other underlying health conditions which limit my movement but I have to do it for my grandchildren,” says Egnetha Sibanda, an elderly woman from Mazvihwa, Zvishavane.

She also says that sometimes walking is not safe especially when there is a gold rush, as villagers fall prey to robbers.

“We walk through thick forests where artisanal miners carry out their activities, and when there is a gold rush, people actually get caught up and sometimes even killed during these disputes,” she adds.

Khethiwe Mgwisiwa, a young woman, shares the same sentiments.

“It’s difficult for us to access information on these outbreaks because of poor network. Thank God we heard about the outbreak on the radio when it had not yet severely affected our children but before then we would see the symptoms not knowing what it is,” says Mgwisiwa.

According to a publication by Peter Aaby on the Measles Infection, the severity of measles varies between the rich and poor, and there are also gender differences in the body’s reaction to the vaccine as girls tend to lose maternal antibodies more rapidly, causing them to be infected earlier than boys.

Unvaccinated pregnant women are also at high risk of being infected.

Internal Medicine Specialist, Dr. Simbiso Ranga says parents and guardians should ensure that their children are vaccinated to contain the killer Measles disease, and curb its spread in schools and other places where children meet.

“The disease has a two-week incubation period and children that show signs of the disease need to be well hydrated as they await a visit to the nearest health facility,” says Dr Ranga.

Achieving gender equity is critical in ensuring good health amongst children, as development practitioners say burdening women with unpaid care work during health crises has emotional and financial implications.

Hands of Hope Trust director Millicent Nhutsve says measles has caused tremendous damage to families in Zimbabwe and the solution lies in equal access to education and financial well-being by women and girls, valuing unpaid care work and translating it into paid jobs.

Nhutsve, who does most of her work in the Zvishavane and Mberengwa districts indicates that “In most mining communities the psychological damage has left religious sect leaders fighting for their rights as children from the Johane Masowe sect die in numbers as the sect does not allow immunization of children and medical treatment for their followers.”

She adds that women who have been trying to gain economic freedom through mining have been finding it difficult to balance the fight against measles and gold-digging.

“We acknowledge government efforts in fighting against the measles outbreak and we hope to have medical facilities that are fully capacitated with motivated staff and drugs to fight and treat patients. I worry that if it is not addressed well, young women and girls will become more vulnerable to trauma that comes from losing their children and relatives prematurely to measles,” Nhutsve says.

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