The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has disrupted people’s way of life across the world, since the virus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Women are not spared from this crisis given the reproductive roles they undertake in their families with limited support from the state especially in Sub Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe included. The crisis has negatively impacted on women in mining communities given the already existing inequalities between women and men in mine affected communities.
The shutdown has negatively affected women’s ability to sustain their families during this crisis, as they are supposed to stay indoors in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Media reports have reported recently that whilst is expected for everyone to stay indoors, the majority of women in the informal sector, have constantly defied this directive and continued to engage in the sale of their goods, being aware of the risks that they take ,in the event that they get caught by the state security agencies.
Zimbabwe, like any other African country, has ‘progressive’ gender equality policies and laws in place, though their implementation is yet to be realized in the context of COVID-19. An analysis of the gender composition of the National Taskforce on COVID-19 is an indication that Zimbabwe needs to put its aspirations into practice. A fifth of the National Taskforce consist of women political leaders in the cabinet, with no representation from the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community and Small and Medium Enterprises. Yet during a crisis, leadership within national gender machineries needs to be visible in order to ensure that the needs of women are adequately addressed by policy makers.
Human rights instruments and agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),Beijing Declaration, Sustainable Development Goals, the African Union Agenda 2063, the African Union Maputo Protocol and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, emphasize the need for prioritizing women’s rights agenda in key interventions aimed at restoring the dignity of humanity. It is during crises such as COVID-19 that calls for authentic leadership across the continent that puts the above stated policies into action, to ensure that marginalized women, especially those living in the rural areas have access to basic needs.
The Constitution, which contains the Bill of Rights, is the only document that protects the rights of women, especially during such trying times like these. Women living in mining communities, who the majority reside in rural areas, have limited access to basic water and sanitation, energy, health care and food, given the fact that mining communities have been greatly affected by the impact of drought due to climate change realities over the past few years.
Gender Based Violence (GBV) incidences have been on the increase since the shutdown was instituted by the government. The shutdown has further increased women’s vulnerabilities, given the limited alternative access to justice and remedy measures for survivors of GBV. These include counselling services, gender friendly shelters for the survivors and other forms of support.
Women’s right to basic health care is a nightmare during the COVID-19 shutdown, given the fact that women, including pregnant women will be denied access to basic reproductive health care. The plight of women living with and affected by HIV and women with disabilities will go unnoticed by policy makers, unless women in decision making processes at the national level put gender sensitive measures in place to ensure that the needs of the above group are taken care of.
It is ironic that women living in mining communities are the ones that are in great need, yet the natural resources extracted from underground by mining companies are supposed to contribute to relief efforts for women and their families. Nevertheless, member states must continue reminding the private sector, especially the mining companies, to contribute to the national COVID-19 relief efforts, starting at the local level where there is greater need.
Whilst the shutdown has disrupted the way of life for many citizens, the role of information technology cannot be underestimated as it bridges the communication gap, of which this is not possible in most mining communities. The current crisis calls for women in political leadership, to identify innovative ways of engaging with their constituencies, the majority being women, to ensure that current and prospective policies and statutes are gender sensitive and respond to their needs.
Women’s rights activists must strengthen their advocacy efforts on calling their governments to be transparent and accountable in the management of revenue from natural resources need to be prioritized in the current context, towards strengthening public health centers. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the state of public health systems in Africa, thus calling African states to fulfill its obligation towards allocating 15% or more towards strengthening the health budget as stated in the Abuja Declaration of 2001.
Cross learning among women’s rights activists across the continent is important in order to learn on how women encountered and responded to previous pandemics such as Ebola which took place between 2014 and 2015 in West Africa. It is critical for women’s rights activists to first take care of themselves, introspect everything and be bold enough to support other women in the communities. This is the time where women should be engaged in writing about their personal experiences and what women from the community are encountering. Such insights are important to fill in the policy and legal gaps identified at national, sub regional and continental level. Leadership is critical at times like these and African leaders need to stand up to the task, bearing in mind the need to uphold the dignity of women, in implementing COVID-19 preventative measures.
Written by Tafadzwa Muropa, Zimbabwe