Balancing life and a crisis – the untold pain of COVID -19 pandemic on women in East Africa
The world is in crisis occasioned by spread of highly infectious disease, Novel Coronavirus; COVID-19. The outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, is within a few months rapidly spread across the world, profoundly putting lives and livelihoods at risk. According to World Health Organization (WHO)1 as at 17th April 2020, there were 2,268,587 confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus with 154,481 deaths globally.
Africa and East Africa region is also battling the pandemic. The governments of East Africa countries have undertaken numerous measures to curb spread of the virus considering weak health systems. Varying levels of lock downs have been declared, and measures including social distancing as a way of reducing the spread of the virus have been put in place. These measures have affected all sectors of the economy including agriculture. While the everybody hopes that the pandemic will eventually retreat, we do not know how soon this will happen. This shock significantly impacts on individuals lives both directly and indirectly. With this pandemic, there is increased risk of reversing gains made towards gender equality, unless measures are taken decisively to protect the rights of the most vulnerable groups (women, children and people living with disabilities among others.). During the 2014–16 West African outbreak of Ebola virus disease, gendered norms meant that women were more likely to be infected by the virus, given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and at times being unable to practise social distancing when required.
Economies of the countries in the region heavily rely on agriculture. Most production work on the farms is undertaken by women, young women and girls who have limited access and control over productive resources which as a result of structural barriers have over time reinforced gender norms that undermine women’s abilities and rights. This has led to an increase in poverty among rural populations and gender inequalities are further perpetuated. This raises grave concerns about the underlying problems COVID-19 compounds. The most vulnerable in the community are likely to be the most affected as they do not have enough resources to manage the shocks COVID-19 causes. Such include older people, poor households, those who have limited decision making powers, the undernourished, and those who live in remote rural areas without access to services, information or help.
Aspirations of small holder farmer families to improve their livelihoods is at risk if the pandemic persists. The situation of vulnerable groups (women, children and youth) could get worse by the day given that they are unable to meaningfully engage with duty bearers to hold them accountable during this time of lock downs and curfews. Women are less likely than men to have power in decision making around an outbreak, and their needs are largely unmet both at household and societal levels. For example, resources for reproductive and sexual health were diverted to the emergency response (such as ambulances), contributing to a rise in maternal mortality as it has been experienced in Uganda already. There is also a likelihood of re-emergence and outbreak of other diseases which might be ignored during this time for instance yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis etc.
Increase in incidences of Gender Based Violence (GBV)
Globally, with COVID-19, nearly one in five women worldwide has experienced violence with many of these women are now trapped at home with their abusers, struggling to access support services that are suffering from cuts and restrictions3. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.
The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on governments across the world to put in place measures that address violence against women and girls a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19. He also made an appeal for peace at homes, in a statement “while lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing the virus, the restrictions could also trap women with abusive partners”.
COVID-19 impacts are far widespread in many households across the region. Sizeable evidence indicates that the pandemic has led to an increase in gender-based violence (GBV). GBV is generally high in the region given the patriarchal nature of the society. With the lock down implemented by many governments requiring people to be at home most of the times, GBV cases including physical and emotional abuse, rape, sexual exploitation, unconfirmed cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriages (which could be as result of hard economic times being experienced in many households especially during this time when there is pressure to provide for a family yet opportunities for income generation are diminishing by the day). The temptation for parents to exchange girls of dowry is very real and the perpetrators could easily get away with this practice. Unfortunately, the law enforcers are focused on ensuring that government directives are adhered to whilst GBV victims are not attended to as required by the law. Victims are unable to access support services especially at night and are forced to spend a night in the same house with their perpetrators thereby exposing them to more violence. Strategies for combating COVID- 19 by the governments such as decongesting the police cells mean that the perpetrators get away with the crime and it is at times treated like a petty offence which “ideally should be resolved at home”. A country like Kenya has GBV and Child help lines (through organisations such as FIDA and the National Council for Children services) which are toll free number that victims/witnesses can use to report incidences but it remains a challenge to get out at night when you risk being arrested for violating a curfew order.
“Vi Agroforestry is working very closely with its partner organisations in the region as we monitor the situation and the resultant effects of COVID -19 on the small holder farmers especially women, children and youth. We continue to provide support with the aim of easing the burden of the pandemic amongst our partner organisations and the small holder farmers they represent. It is our wish that women, girls, boys, people living with disabilities, the elderly and other vulnerable groups do not go through any discriminatory and humiliating experiences as countries in the region fight the pandemic. We encourage small holder farmer families in the region to stand firm during this trying time and be considerate of others in their midst who are vulnerable and need support to overcome any challenges that they might experience during this period of curfews and lockdowns. we will support in making your voices heard”, says Lena Martens Kalmelid, Regional Director, Vi Agroforestry.
Access to Reproductive Health Care
Sizeable evidence in East Africa indicates that COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in maternal mortality and limited lack of access to healthcare. In Uganda, Reuters2 reported that a mother; Scovia Nakawooya’s unborn child died inside her womb as she struggled to reach a hospital on foot. The mother was reported to die an hour later. In the same country, seven women in labour become casualties of Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown. Considering the pandemic and with all attention shifting to fighting the COVID-19, vulnerable groups in East Africa’s rural areas have limited means of transport to hospital during curfew and the resources are already allocated to COVID-19 fight. East African countries also have inadequate resources allocated to health care. With the pandemic, small holder farmers are no longer able to easily access other health care services as before as attention has focused to COVID-19. This has an effect of reducing a workforce and thus likely impact on food security in coming months.
The burden of care
Given the nature of the society in the region, women are socialised to be care givers and are expected to perform this duty naturally—not just for children in the face of school closures, but also for extended family members during this time of COVID -19 pandemic. As family members fall ill, women are more likely to provide care for them (as documented during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, and with , and in many other places), putting themselves at higher risk of exposure as well as sacrificing their time. Women are also more likely to be burdened with household tasks, which increase with more people staying at home during a quarantine while their general wellbeing is forgotten by the society. The fatigue is enormous when one individual in a home is expected to do so much with little or no support from others.
Mercy Wamukota a resident of Kimaeti location in Western Kenya laments on her experiences during the COVID -19 pandemic, “the virus has affected my life in that I can no longer generate enough income to sustain my family and this has led to conflict in my home because I quarrel with my husband about provisions. My movement is restricted, and I can longer go to church and socialise with my friends and family. I also have more work to do at home because the whole family is at home”.
Response to COVID-19 Pandemic
Countries in the region have weak health care systems and inadequate resources to adequately manage mass COVID-19 infections. Thus, the need for prevention of mass infections will be the most appropriate method to manage the pandemic. Of concern is that already, some countries in the region are experiencing food shortage even without souring effects of COVID-19. There is a need to caution the small holder farmers about the unforeseen effects of the pandemic and what they can do to remain safe.
Embrace the use of information technology in communication with small holder farmers especially in remote areas which have good and reliable internet/connectivity. This will ensure that the food items move from the small holder farmers to the consumers in mainly urban areas and reduce the need for physical markets. Digital technologies have a big role to play in anticipating problems and smoothing temporary shortages as well as building the resilience of food chains to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
Develop social support mechanisms for the victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and other social effects of COVID-19. All stakeholders ought to have mechanisms to offer support women who are likely to suffer from depression and also psychosocial support when one falls victim of domestic violence and create linkages with referral systems that can provide advanced care to victims as well as avenues to seek justice for offences committed against them.
Encourage project partners to be aware and sensitive to the concerns of vulnerable groups and provide support when called upon. Take advantage of the reporting systems to reach out to various actors who can be of assistance or even reach out to the safeguarding lead at Vi Agroforestry for support.
One crisis. One world. Your voice. #coronavoices