Time to Mainstream COVID-19 into GBV and Women’s Rights programing

In 2021, my nephew died of COVID-19. Just like so many relatives of more than 5,367 Zimbabweans[1] who have died during the nearly two-year pandemic, I was not able to participate in a funeral, wake, body viewing or funeral. These are all important rituals and I still feel sad when I think of how I not only lost him, but I also missed the chance to properly mourn him with loved ones.

By Edinah Masiyiwa

The pandemic and its outcomes have not only robbed us of our loved ones, but it has also affected so many aspects of our society, including our push for women’s rights.

The year 2020, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality.[2] This was not the case as the whole world, Zimbabwe included, was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and it has had many negative effects on the lives of all, particularly women.

For more than 20 years, I have supported the women’s empowerment and gender equality agenda in Zimbabwe. As I sit at my verandah today, I am sad to realize how many of the recent gains that we made to pass laws and policies promoting women’s rights have been eroded by COVID-19. In part, this is because women who are part of the women’s movement in Zimbabwe are dealing with their own pain and grief, as I am. The energy and zeal to continue promoting gender equality is gone.

The enormity of living in isolation, changes in our daily lives, job loss, financial hardship, and grief over the death of loved ones has affected the mental health and well-being of many.[3] COVID-19 has affected women who are employed formally and those in the informal sector, where a majority of women make their living. A number of unpublished research reports reveal a decline in sales for women in the informal sector which made it difficult for them to feed their families. Thus, many women in the informal sector have over the two years expressed that it is better to die of COVID-19 than to die of hunger as they go against the COVID-19 regulations.[4]

Apart from the psychological impact, COVID-19 has increased gender-based violence (GBV), a social problem oft-times linked to economic challenges. Cases of GBV rose sharply in Zimbabwe in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdown with the national GBV hotline recording a 200% increase.[5] This brought sorrow to women as they had nowhere to turn to when they experienced violence as the strict lock down measures did not allow people to move without letters to confirm that they are part of essential services.

Organisations that support women and girls who experience violence have also been affected by the economic challenges as donors have reduced funding, choosing to support COVID-19 interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut into nonprofits’ resources while increasing demand for their services. As they are asked to do more with less money and reduced staff.[6] This has worsened the lives of women as the usual support for problems like domestic violence and economic challenges and protection from harmful cultural practices is no longer available. Women have had to design new coping mechanisms.

COVID-19 has greatly affected access to health services for women and girls, such 
as contraceptives, which has resulted in 4959 teenage pregnancies in January and 
February 2021 alone.[7] There are no figures specifically documenting unwanted 
pregnancies for women, but reports have highlighted an increase in these too.

Health care services were overstretched before the COVID-19 epidemic, and then they worsened dramatically. Health-care workers, many of whom are women, have been concerned about their risk, many have been infected, and there is no clear pathway for how to manage those who are infected.[8]

As we plan for the commemoration of the International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, under the theme “Gender Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, I call on all women and women’s organisations to come together and design safety nets that can assist women in difficult circumstances. As we did with HIV in the past[9], we can form support groups which help us share our stories as we seek emotional healing. We have the power to organize, we have done this without any resources. Let us find time to heal from the devastating effects of COVID-19. Together we can organize memorial services for our loved ones who died from COVID-19. We need to do that so that we reenergise each other and start defending and promoting women’s rights with the same zeal which we had before COVID-19.

I also urge the government and donors to re consider their way of funding. COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, so we need to mainstream COVID into our existing programmes instead of the other way round. This is also a reminder that our government has committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. I therefore call on our government to address all the negative effects of COVID 19 on women and girls. Specific programmes on psychosocial support should be put in place to help those who are having mental problems, for instance. We need these today for a sustainable tomorrow.

[1] Number of people who have died from COVID in Zimbabwe – Search (bing.com)

[2] policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_apr_2020_updated.pdf (un.org)

[3] Psychological impact of COVID-19 (apa.org)

[4] The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on Zimbabwe’s informal economy – Institute of Development Studies (ids.ac.uk)

[5] GBV Cases Increase By 200% Due To Covid-19 Lockdown – UN – NewZimbabwe.com

[6] The Current and Potential Impact of COVID-19 on Nonprofits (ssir.org)

[7] Covid-19 lockdown sees spike in teenage pregnancies: Should contraceptives be distributed in schools? | Kubatana

[8] COVID-19 worsens Zimbabwe’s health crisis – The Zimbabwean.

[9] Community groups as ‘critical enablers’ of the HIV response in Zimbabwe (nih.gov)

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