In January, a second wave of Covid-19 shook southern African countries—the continent’s hardest hit region, which has started receiving vaccines for the pandemic.
In Malawi, two ministers succumbed to the outbreak in January alone and the daily confirmed cases surged as high as 1 316. In Zimbabwe, four ministers died in the same month. Similarly, South Africans mourned the death of Jackson Mthembu, a minister and presidential adviser who became the face of the worst-hit nation’s fight against the coronavirus disease.
Thousands of ordinary people died as the pandemic knows no gender, age, race or status.
At Bingu National Stadium (BNS) emergency Covid-19 Isolation centre in Lilongwe, there were always many women guardians seated by the entrance of the sports arena which no longer hosts games because of the virus.
There were similar sights at Kamuzu Central Hospital in the capital city.
These women were exposing themselves to the fast-spreading virus just to care for their loved ones.
At the same time, Malawi’s Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare reports that almost 40 000 underage girls were forced into marriage and about 13 000 got pregnant during the five-month school break caused by Covid-19 last year.
A workmate, Sarah Chisanje, writes a story of a 14-year-old Nduuzani she met in Nsanje District. The minor was married off by her father to an older man who paid a K200 000 dowry to him during the sudden school shutdown.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, says “the pandemic has prompted an escalation in gender-based violence against women and girls in Southern Africa. It has also magnified existing structural problems such as poverty, inequality, crime, high unemployment and systematic criminal justice failures”.
Amnesty International’s brief, “Treated like furniture: Gender-based violence and COVID-19 response in Southern Africa”, shows that women and girls who dare report violence and abuse risk social rejection for failing to conform to gender roles. When they do speak out, their complaints are not taken seriously by authorities.
Covid-19, like many other crises, is affecting women and men, girls and boys differently.
Every time I drove by BNS, I asked myself the losses the women incurred just to take care of their loved ones while men, who could have equally done caregiving roles, were pursuing other opportunities to develop their lives.
These women were working for no pay.
During the Covid-related school closures, girls have had their bright futures nipped by social pressure, parents and guardians who forced them into marriage or unprotected sex.
Some women and girls have been hurt physically and mentally because some Covid-19 lockdown measures ‘jailed’ them in homes that “became enclaves of cruelty, rape and violence for women and girls trapped with abusive family members and nowhere to report or escape the danger”, notes Amnesty International.
Surely, a one-size-fit-all response to crises does little to help vulnerable women and girls who suffer the grave consequences of the raging crisis.
It is perplexing, therefore, that most governments in southern Africa have not clearly stated strategies to make Covid-19 responses gender-sensitive.
They just allocate resources to the national responses and assume that women and girls, just like their male counterparts, will equally benefit. This approach is vague, retrogressive and unresponsive.
As small rations of Covid-19 vaccines arrive in the region, it is imperative to ensure that women and girls have equal access to vaccines.
Women and girls who bear the brunt of unpaid care work which exposes them to potential infections as well as gender-based violence. As such, they must also top the list of at-risk groups to be vaccinated.
As we celebrate the strength of women this month under the theme #ChooseToChallenge, now is the time citizens of our countries in the worst-hit region challenged decisions and practices that oppress and marginalise women and girls.
Challenging gender-blind Covid-19 responses will bring about the desired change towards gender equality.