Will Covid-19 deepen gender inequality?

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought forth an unexpected economic hardship.

Those working in horticulture, travel, hospitality, retail and manufacturing sectors have either been laid off or sent home on unpaid leave.

Women who depend on daily wages as domestic workers are jobless because the middle class no longer needs their services; most are working from home, and are observing social distancing.

Open air markets are closed and where they are open, profits are thinner because demand is weaker.

Stressed couples find themselves in a house with children who need to eat, earnings notwithstanding.

Then the government announces the 7pm to 5am curfew.

How companies and the government respond to Covid-19 presents a breeding ground for aggravating gender inequalities, experts argue.

“There are those inequalities that might actually be magnified at the end of this (pandemic),” says Cleopatra Mugyenyi, Director of International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW).

“For example, the women who were employed on temporary contracts and laid off in this crisis are less likely to be rehired when things begin to pick up,” Dr Mugyenyi says.

She says businesses would prefer to hire men because they are seen to be more reliable as they do not have childcare needs like women.

Women will, therefore, be subjected to a new level of discrimination as they seek job opportunities post-Covid-19.

The healthcare system has been upset and focus has shifted to addressing the pandemic, thus overlooking women and girls’ essential services, she says.

“With measures that there is no going out for non-essential work and health systems focusing on coronavirus; what happens to sexual and reproductive health? What happens if you need to get your contraceptive or HIV drugs?” she asks.

“With the men sitting at home with no football matches to entertain them, they are likely to find leisure in sex, resulting in unplanned pregnancies, causing untold stress to the woman,” says Memory Kachambwa, executive director for African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) while emphasising on why access to contraceptive cannot be overlooked at this time.

Women’s mental health is equally at risk due to the new norm of interactions at community and household level, affecting freedom to enjoy a stress-free life.

The pandemic is economically straining households, a pressure which would result to intimate partner violence.

“Stressful situations can lead to conflicts, which can lead to more intimate partner violence,” says ICRW’s Dr Mugyenyi.

Studies have shown that homes are among the unsafe places for women as this is where they are sexually, physically and emotionally abused by spouses or relatives.

John Wanyoike, a Nakuru based gender equality advocate says men get stressed when they can’t provide for their families, and confining them to homes increases their stress levels.

Unfortunately, the woman becomes the victim of his disturbed mental state, as they become hostile and violent, he says.

Ms Kachambwa agrees with Mr Wanyoike: “We want people to stay at home, what sort of homes?

“What is lacking is specific proposition like call centres or publishing hotlines or finding safe spaces to provide refuge for women and girls subjected to sexual and gender-based violence,” she notes.

Water is at the core of Covid-19’s preventive measures and while it would save women and girls’ lives, access to the commodity opens room for violation of their rights.

The trips women and girls make to distant water points not only exposes them to rape and defilement, but also affects their physical and mental health, says Ms Kachambwa of Femnet.

“Can we have free water points not just for washing hands but also for cooking?” she asks.

“Can we have water in every 500-metre distance? We need these practical responses to avoid widening gender inequalities,” she adds

Ensuring children are free from malnutrition is predominantly a woman’s role. Covid-19 makes it a tougher role to play.

Closure of markets has cut them off from the affordable supply of nutritious food, risking the health of the young ones.

“Who will bear the burden of making sure the children regain their immunity? It is, of course, the woman,” notes Ms Kachambwa.

She says the government needs to provide a food package to the households through the local administration to secure the immunity of men, women, children and persons with disabilities.

But even the government’s food relief would face hiccups, including a high population of infected women, the people who lead the way in collecting food supplements for the family.

Pascalia Makonjo, a gender adviser in Busia County, says women are more vulnerable to infections from the male partners “who have multiple partners, they go infect this woman and return home to infect his wife”.

Economically, women are likely to make three steps backwards once the coronavirus effect is over; they bear the burden of unpaid labour.

Secondly, they work in informal sectors with no safety nets such as insurance, and thirdly, companies prefer male workforce due perceived commitment.

On unpaid care, Ms Kachambwa says: “Right now, unpaid care is weighing down women and any request for help from their husbands would attract violence as the society does not support sharing of unpaid care.”

This, she says, “is causing the women a lot of mental stress and unfortunately, the social support systems like churches and women groups have been disrupted. They have nowhere to relieve themselves. We need to think about addressing mental health of women if they are to remain productive after this crisis.”

Dr Mugyenyi, however, says men’s exposure to the burden of care women carry at home would change them to become supportive.

“You may find that men are taking up more child care roles because they have been forced to be at home to see what their wives go through,” she says.

Although, President Uhuru Kenyatta offered tax incentives on March 25, Dr Mugyenyi says the directive excluded women in the informal economy, hence fails to cushion them from collapse of their businesses.

“How do you expect the woman who sells vegetables every day to survive to rebuild her business if the markets have been closed and she has to use her capital to feed her children,” wonders Mr Wanyoike, the gender equality advocate.

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