National responses for the COVID-19 pandemic have not focused on those on the margins of society; among which are girls and women. Given this fact, creating space to express the gendered impacts of the pandemic felt necessary. Moreover, sharing some of the strategies that have been adopted by grant-making organizations that center to mitigate these impacts are imperative.
The fact of the matter is that information on the pandemic as well as data on those affected pandemic has not been readily available, which makes gender specific information on disproportional impacts on girls and women even more limited. This is not only concerning as it gets is the way of current mitigation, but also poses a challenge for post-pandemic community building efforts. The panelists all seemed to echo the matter of fact that when we speak of protecting girls and women, there needs to be a deliberate focus on them if we are to ensure they do not go unnoticed during and after the pandemic.
Current responses such as lockdowns and other movement restrictions like curfews, although deemed necessary have proven to have adverse effects on women. The stay-at-home mandate as well as the closing of schools has seen most girls at a greater risk of domestic violence as well as sexual assault in their homes. Ruth Meena from Women Fund Tanzania Trust reported 100 and 194 schoolgirl pregnancies in the regions of Tunduru and Shinyanga respectively. Also, 703 Gender Based Violence (GBV) have been so far reported across the country.
Tariro Tandi of Urgent Action Fund-Africa reminds us for most women, access to reproductive health services has become limited, thus making it harder for them to mitigate any of the violence- sexual or otherwise- they might be subjected to. According to UN women it is also important to remember that 89% of women’s employment across sub-Saharan Africa is informal (vendors, domestic work, sex work) and requires mobility as well as social interaction, which has been hindered by responses restricting movement. The gendered expectation for girls to help with house chores have also rendered them as fulltime caretakers and homemakers, with little time to focus on their studies and other self-growth engagements.
The increase in surveillance in order to enforce the lockdown restrictions has made some women more vulnerable by policing their movement. Human rights activists, women who rely on fleeing for protection against violence of any kind have now been put at greater risk. This is not exhaustive of the impacts that girls and women have been and will continue to go through, but it does begin to give us an idea of the disproportion.
Perhaps the most important takeaways from the discussion for me were the approaches to coming up with mitigation strategies. Firstly, the idea that even within the margins there reside women who are further marginalized via intersecting identities. That any strategy that claims to prioritize women needs to be inclusive of women in rural areas, gender non-conforming women, disabled women, LGBTQIA+ women. Secondly, that mitigating strategies need to go beyond material needs if they are to be truly impactful.
Tariro Tandi talks about the need to consider healing through ensuring psychosocial support services that address the emotional and mental trauma that many women will have endured through the pandemic are available and accessible. Also, guaranteeing that girls and women’s voices are genuinely heard so that their needs and demands are highlighted. And that they may have agency in the kinds of mitigation strategies that work best for them, so that we do not end up alienating the very people we claim to serve.
As Abigail Burgesson from Africa Women’s Fund reminded us, many of the issues that are set to be tackled during and in the post-pandemic period are not necessarily new. The gendered socio-economic effects mean that the struggle with resources mobilizing that many women organizations are currently going through are enduring concerns. Now more than ever, as we talk about how to best serve other women and each other, we have to be self-reliant. We are being reminded to look inward for resources. This makes conversations such as this one, with the sharing of crucial knowledge, tools and strategies particularly important.
Here is the link to the full audio from the webinar.
By Karen Chalamilla