Even before the pandemic, women carried an unequal burden of social, cultural and economic ills. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this, with the effects of lockdown disproportionately affecting women, write Charlotte Motsoari and Amina Mwaikambo at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
As South Africa slowly emerges from the hard lockdown first imposed earlier this year, it is increasingly clear that Covid-19 has a gendered burden—women have borne much of the hardships imposed by the pandemic.
Historically, social and economic ills disproportionately affect women. These issues include sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, reproductive health. All of these are thanks to the perpetuation of patriarchy.
And yet, despite these burdens, women remain at the forefront of social movements in all spheres of society, fighting for equality and justice for all, just as they have since that historic march to the Union Buildings in 1956. Now, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has brought a unique set of challenges.
Added domestic duties
Already, women make up 70% of the healthcare and social services staff globally, and it is essential services that are gravely burdened during this pandemic. Then, when schools closed women in all sectors found they had more responsibility. Women by default became overnight teachers, monitoring virtual classes and home-schooling.
Under most social and cultural norms, women shoulder a large proportion of the domestic responsibilities. As the workplace and school moved into the home, it increased the load that the woman had to manage, while still maintaining professional productivity.
Now, domestic care also involved accessing information on how to sanitise one's household to prevent contamination, and how to nurse Covid-19 infected family members. This added a new dynamic to daily household maintenance.
While it is true that the pandemic has affected everyone, women appear to have been impacted more than men. A woman's position in society further influences how she is able negotiate her resources and the daily challenges to quality of life and safety.
Affecting access to healthcare
According to the World Health Organisation, some of the projected impacts of this pandemic include a possible increase in maternal mortality. The restructuring of hospitals in preparation for the Covid-19 peak impacted prevented some pregnant women from accessing prenatal healthcare.
In some African states, like Zimbabwe, there has been a significant decrease in the number of live births since the outbreak of Covid-19. Furthermore, there is still a measure of uncertainty about the transmission of Covid-19 from mother to child, as well as the virus' possible long-lasting effects on neonates. These are all issues that now form the lived experiences of women during this pandemic.
As school's closed, girls who accessed sexual reproductive health products and sanitary services from schools were also impacted. Organisations had to devise a way to disseminate menstrual and feminine hygiene products and medications that was compliant with Covid-19 regulations. This not only affected girls' menstrual health, but also their physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Gender-based violence during lockdown
While gendered approaches to health and development are key, the female body itself is also a very prominent site of violence. In South Africa, there are continuous reports of cases of gender based violence, particularly during lockdown. These GBV cases reflect the lack of safety women experience, the fear they live with, and the constant need for vigilance.
Cases of intimate partner violence are layered. A woman who is assaulted in her home must bear the shame of being violated, sometimes in front of her children or neighbours. If she reports the incident, she has to relive her traumatic experiences in hospitals and at police stations in order to obtain any justice.
The fallacy of resilience
It is disheartening to know that women bear the burden of so many social, economic and psychological burdens. The Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdown have not only highlighted this, they have worsened it.
This reality brings to mind the negative connotation behind the widely used slogan, "You strike a woman, you strike a rock" and "Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka bohaleng" (A woman holds the sharp end of the knife).
What is meant as encouragement for women to be resilient has lost its value. It perpetuates the narrative that women should hold on regardless of how painful their circumstances are, and thrive while they are stabbed, raped and violated. This narrative keeps women in a perpetual state of survival, which has further psychological and physiological repercussions.
While the fight for gender equality has not been without support from men, it is not nearly enough. There are more voices and actions that speak against equality and the empowerment of women than for it. This must change if society is to move forward—the global pandemic has made that clear.
We need to re-evaluate how society has neglected a gendered approach to the responses to this global crisis. We need a collaborative effort towards sharing these burdens, both existing ones and ones brought on by the pandemic. That starts with a difficult, yet honest conversation about the plight of women.
And in so doing, we can all lift the unnecessarily heavy burden off women's shoulders.
This op-ed was originally published by Health-e News.