Covid-19 is yet another burden on the shoulders of women


This year, Freedom Day on April 27 came and went without celebration for women in townships and on farms in South Africa. It was just another day of struggle, with women having to walk at least two kilometres to fetch water, sometimes from empty JoJo tanks, fending off attacks on the way, and now being stopped and sent back home by police who say they are maintaining Covid-19 lockdown rules. Other struggles wait for them back at home.

For Francina Nkosi in Lephalale, Limpopo this isn’t what democracy was supposed to bring. The Constitution enshrines the right to access clean, safe water for all people, not just for those in the suburbs. She says: “It is incorrect to still find women in rural areas in a democratic society struggling to access water, [or] suffer physical or sexual abuse for water. We want the government to address this concern. Our Constitution says we have the right to clean water. It [the government] needs to recognise the need of women in remote rural areas.”

Access to water is fast becoming a defining issue in South Africa, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. The C19 Women’s Solidarity Forum, composed of several civil society organisations acting on behalf of over 200 communities across the country sent a letter recently, to draw government’s urgent attention to this crisis. It raised the distress that women across 24 communities in five provinces were facing from inadequate access to water. These represent some of the starkest cases, but are clearly not the only ones.

It is a disturbing irony then that, during this pandemic, the government is advising that water is   essential to curbing the contraction of the disease. The plight of poor communities across the country who  don’t have a regular supply of water has exposed the fault lines and legacy of skewed spatial planning and inefficient government delivery of basic services and infrastructure.

The government has dedicated funds for water in its Covid-19 assistance. Of the R500-billion budget allocated to respond to the gaping economic and social effects of the pandemic, R20-billion has been set aside to municipalities for the provision of emergency water supplies, among other urgent needs.

Yet the reality on the ground is far removed from what the government has accounted for and the actual implementation and roll-out in local municipalities. For many going about their daily lives in townships and rural areas their only water sources are rivers, communal taps and water tanks.

Some rivers have also been captured for use by mines, as is the case with the Tendele mine in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal. People must queue for hours to receive water delivered by tankers because the rivers are dry from extended periods of drought. Most elderly women and children are walking long distances because the pipes have been diverted, and some water vendors are making a profit at the expense of poor households with already strained financial resources.

Medical Nziba, an activist in Somkhele, says: “The nearest water resource is far away from our home. We must walk for two kilometres.  Government is failing to assist us to overcome this obstacle for many years and even now during this challenging time of fighting the coronavirus. We are worried if the spread of the virus penetrated our villages, how do we get water to use and stay safe?”

And Emma Hlatshwayo from Phola/Ogies in Mpumalanga says: “We are unemployed and we are living in poor conditions — no access to housing, water and sanitation. When I wake up in the morning I am not looking forward to start a new day.”

The voices missing from this crisis are those of women, especially in rural areas, who bear the brunt of providing water for their families and their livestock. They need it to irrigate their land, cook and maintain hygiene.

Poorer communities do not have the luxury of physical distancing or simply turning on a tap to prevent the threat or transmission of Covid-19. The effects of the pandemic are an added struggle to an already heavy burden for women.

Jane Mkhatswa of Phola/Ogies in Mpumalanga relates: “The lockdown has restricted the movement of women, and they have been turned away by police when they try to collect water. Now some of the women wait until it gets dark to collect water so that they won’t be seen by police. This has put a lot of strain on the women.”

After 26 years of democracy what does our freedom mean if our people are still bereft of dignity, without access to basic needs like water and shelter? Covid-19 will be the great leveller from which we will all chart a new course. The voices of women must be front and centre of this effort.

This article was authored by C19 Women’s Solidarity Forum: WoMin African Alliance with contributions from the following organisations: Witzenberg Justice Centre, Trust for Community Outreach and Education, Women On Farms, Women Affected by Mining United in Action, International Labour Research and Information Group, Rural Women’s Assembly, The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union

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