/ 24 March 2020

Safeguarding women’s rights during the Covid-19 shutdown

Graphic Gender Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)


As the coronavirus escalates its deadly journey across South Africa, the different effects on women and men are also becoming more apparent. Although men constitute more of those infected, women are much more likely to be the majority of those affected.

According to the executive director of United Nations Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: “This is a moment for governments to recognise both the enormity of the contribution women make and the precarity of so many.” 

In a statement, Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was formerly South Africa’s deputy president, cautioned governments to “focus on sectors where women are overrepresented and underpaid, such as daily wage earners, small business owners, those working in cleaning, caring, cashiering and catering sectors and in the informal economy.” South Africa is no exception to these trends, with the threat of rising domestic violence under a 21-day lockdown also a major concern for women’s rights organisations.

By the time this article is published, Tuesday’s number of 554 infected cases will likely have multiplied, rising to 4 000 by the end of the month, according to Mail & Guardian estimates. The latest sex disaggregated statistics from the department of health show 62% of those infected are men. This mirrors statistics in China, where the virus was first detected, and Italy, now the epicentre of the pandemic.

Mercifully, no one had yet died in South Africa at the time of writing. In Italy, where deaths are now in their thousands, 72% of all deaths have been men, especially in the older age bracket.

According to the Lancet Gender and Covid-19 Working Group, possible reasons appear both social and biological. Around the globe more men smoke cigarettes than women, making them more susceptible to the respiratory complications in coronaviruses.  Research also shows that women could have stronger immune responses to coronaviruses, possibly linked to higher levels of oestrogen and having two X chromosomes. 

Covid-19 and HIV

A big unknown and concern in South Africa — aired in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech on Monday March 23 — is how the high levels of HIV and Aids, which preys on the immune system, will affect the spread of the virus here. Young women constitute 57% of the more than 5-million people living with HIV and Aids in South Africa.

HIV in South Africa highlighted how the reproductive and care role of women is amplified in times of emergencies, as Ebola did in Liberia. For a start women constitute more than 80% of those who work in the health sector. Globally, according to the World Health Organisation, women in this sector work longer hours but earn 11% less than men. In Italy, 9% of those infected by the coronavirus are health workers, underscoring the vulnerability of first responders in this pandemic.

Hospitals are preparing to care for only the most severe cases — possibly just 5% to 20% of the total. With the largest number of people self- isolating and medicating, women will most likely bear the burden of this home-based care as they have done in the case of HIV and Aids. The big difference is that whereas the burden of HIV and Aids can be shared by the community, caring for a Covid-19 patient is, of necessity, a lonely job.

Globally and in South Africa, women carry out on average more than three times the daily care work in the home than men. Now, especially during the 21-day lockdown, tasks normally shared in the public space — such as schooling, and care for the fragile — will largely be transferred to women.

Domestic workers

In South Africa, domestic workers make up more than one million employees, or 8% of the workforce. They provide huge support to many working women. Some domestic workers live on their employer’s premises; others commute long distances from the townships to their place of work. Responsible employers will have given domestic workers long leave to be with their families.

But a real fear as the economy shrinks is whether they will have jobs to return to. Already, according to domestic workers unions, this sector has been one of the most susceptible to retrenchments as middle-class families struggle to make ends meet. Migrant women who lack immigration papers are especially vulnerable.

When the formal sector has closed its doors on women, they have sought refuge in the informal sector, where they predominate in the “survivalist” or lowest-paid rungs of this sector. As municipalities clamp down on street vendors, women will feel the pinch more than men.

With 35 of South Africa’s land borders closed — and neighbouring countries, such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, clamping shut many of the remaining land connections — informal, cross-border trade is at a standstill. Television images of women closing their fruit stalls at places such as Komatipoort belie the bigger reality of women who are often sole breadwinners cut off from all their income for an imponderable period of time.

Announcing various economic rescue packages this week, the president promised that one would be “support for persons in the informal sector, where most businesses will suffer as a result of this shutdown.” But it’s the one area where “most details” will be announced only “soon”.      

Women’s health 

Because of women’s reproductive role in society, women have particular health needs that are now under threat. Pregnant women are at high risk. There is a further danger that, as health resources are diverted to address the pandemic, normal health services, including those for maternal health, are disrupted. According to UN Women, evidence from past epidemics such as Ebola and zika is that “efforts to control outbreaks often divert resources from routine health services including pre- and postnatal healthcare and contraceptives.”

The gains that were gradually being made in sexual and reproductive health and rights — including menstrual health, maternal health, safe abortion, and LGBTIQ rights — are under threat. Crucially, as families are locked in their homes, often in cramped quarters, gender violence — the biggest threat to women’s bodily integrity — looms ever larger. 

Evidence from outbreaks of Ebola and Zika showed that domestic violence increases during lockdown periods. Issues such as stress, alcohol consumption and financial stresses can be triggers for violence in the home. Women’s groups caution that lockdown conditions could be used by perpetrators to control a partner’s behaviour, blocking access to safety and support.

In South Africa, where one in three women experience domestic violence, and the rate of femicide (the killing of a woman by her intimate partner) is five times the global average, what will happen behind the closed doors of this lockdown is a huge worry.

Holding the line of the fragile gains made by women’s rights activists in the #TotalShutdown and related campaigns in the time of corona will require focus and fortitude. It will also require that the government cast an incisive gender lens on its every move in the coming months.

Susan Tolmay is the governance and justice manager at Gender Links and Colleen Lowe Morna is chief executive at the same organisation