Women’s Month: reflecting on women’s experiences in the context of COVID-19 – By Ineke Stemmet, SALO

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Women’s month in South Africa is commemorated to pay tribute to the more than 20 000 women who, on 9 August 1956, marched to the Union Buildings to protest the Apartheid Regime’s extension of the pass laws onto women.  As such, August is declared by the South African government as women’s month and August 9th is celebrated as Women’s Day.[1] This women’s month takes place within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which women are affected in gender-specific ways. It is therefore an opportunity to reflect on the victimisation of women and vulnerable groups in South Africa; to celebrate their agency, and to foster their empowerment.

The Feminisation of COVID-19

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown is shaping people’s lived experiences around the world.  However, the gendered impact of the virus is an important and underacknowledged factor. As previous outbreaks and pandemics have consistently shown, women are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of pandemics than men. [2] The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women has estimated that globally, women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic the most. [3] In a Webinar hosted by the Irish Embassy on 4 August 2020, panellists discussed the various ways in which this occurs, focusing particularly on the South African context.[4]

Lockdown has rendered many women unsafe and at increased risk of gender-based and domestic violence, due to being confined inside with their abusers.  On day seven of the lockdown in South Africa, 2,320 cases of domestic violence were reported to the police. [5] These reported cases often do not reflect the real numbers, which are believed to be much higher. Often, survivors do not know where and how to report abuse and they are – now more than ever – monitored closely by their abusers, making it difficult for them to report abuse at all.[6]

Furthermore, women are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as the ones taking up the multiple roles required to keep households and communities surviving during the lockdown. These roles include care worker, mother, and bread winner in their families. Traditional value systems in South Africa means that, generally, women are the ones going out into crowded places to try to make an income, or to go to crowded water collection points.[7] As such, they disproportionately run the risk of being infected by COVID-19 by entering these crowded spaces, and by caring for sick family and community members. Moreover, it is stated that women are more likely to be unaware of important messaging on COVID-19, due to higher rates of illiteracy among women than among men in South Africa. [8] In this way, there has been a feminisation of the pandemic.

Incidents of members of the LGBTQI+ community being denied healthcare for medical issues other than COVID-19 related symptoms, as well as trans women and men being turned away from shelters because of their gender identity, were discussed in the Webinar.[9] This highlights the ways in which different intersections of identity such as gender, race, class, geographical area, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity play a prominent role in the ways in which people experience the pandemic. It is important for women and queer people to be empowered during this time as the abuse against these communities will have lasting impacts on the South African society and the post-COVID ‘new normal’.

Women’s agency

It is important to highlight not only the victimisation of women and vulnerable groups, but also the agency of women and queer people. In this way, the pandemic is also feminised, as women are using their agency to make a difference. This is seen in them taking up their roles as caregivers, as mentioned above, and by organising and mobilising to care for their communities.[10] The women’s activists contributing to the Webinar – Rosie Motene, Caroline Peters, Mandisa Khanyile, Bomikazi Mhlongo and Pontsho Pilane – are implementing their agency to stand up for women and vulnerable communities.[11] They suggest that skills development, access to the poor and the ultra-poor and a platform where people can share their ideas, stories and hardships is imperative for empowerment.

It is against this background that an intersectional feminist approach to the pandemic is the most conducive to empowering women and vulnerable communities in society. This approach focuses on and empowers vulnerable groups – women, children, migrants, and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Sources:

  1. Irish Embassy Webinar: Women’s Agency in the time of COVID-19. 4 August 2020.
  2. Lungu, C.N. 2020. Covid-19: Not only about health – but human rights too. Daily Maverick, 16 April. Accessible: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-16-covid-19-not-only-about-health-but-human-rights-too/#gsc.tab=0 [21 July 2020].
  3. Matuba, M. 2020. Women are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle, but GBV is taking its toll. Daily Maverick, 15 May. Accessible: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-05-15-women-are-on-the-frontlines-in-the-covid-19-battle-but-gbv-is-taking-its-toll/ [5 August 2020].
  4. South African Government website. 2014. Women’s Month. Accessible: https://www.gov.za/womens-month#:~:text=South%20Africa%20commemorates%20Women’s%20Month,celebrated%20annually%20as%20Women’s%20Day. [5 August 2020]
  5. United Nations, 2020. Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on women. 9 April. Accessible: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en.pdf?la=en&vs=1406 [21 July 2020].
  6. Wenham, C., Smith, J. & Morgan, R. 2020. COVID-19: The gendered impacts of the outbreak. The Lancet, 6 March. Accessible: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30526-2/fulltext [5 August 2020].

[1] South African government website. 2014. Women’s month.

[2] Wenham, C., Smith, J. & Morgan, R. 2020. COVID-19: The gendered impacts of the outbreak. The Lancet, 6 March.

[3] United Nations, 2020. Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on women. 9 April.

[4] Irish Embassy Webinar: Women’s Agency in the time of COVID-19

[5] Lungu, C.N. 2020. Covid-19: Not only about health – but human rights too. Daily Maverick, 16 April.

[6] Irish Embassy Webinar: Women’s Agency in the time of COVID-19

[7] Lungu, C.N. 2020. Covid-19: Not only about health – but human rights too. Daily Maverick, 16 April.

[8] Ibid

[9] Irish Embassy Webinar: Women’s Agency in the time of COVID-19

[10] Matuba, M. 2020. Women are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle, but GBV is taking its toll. Daily Maverick, 15 May.

[11] Irish Embassy Webinar: Women’s Agency in the time of COVID-19