In times of crises, like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, gender equality is often temporarily put on hold.
Gendered dimensions tend to be regarded as secondary, but studies have shown that emergency responses that fail to incorporate a gender lens are highly likely to exacerbate existing inequalities, and in turn exacerbate outbreaks.
Evidence also suggests that during any humanitarian crisis, manmade or natural – women always get left behind in the economic realm. This not only impacts their livelihoods but also increases the gender gap in terms of incomes and opportunities.
This however, seems to be the case regarding measures being taken by developing countries like Zimbabwe and others in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) in response to the pandemic. Their measures are largely gender neutral and may worsen inequalities or push back women to poverty after the crisis.
Gender equality is firmly rooted in Sadc’s regional integration agenda where member states are abided by the fundamental principle that both women and men must be equally engaged in decision-making at all levels and in all positions of leadership.
Sadc also recognises that the equal and meaningful participation and representation of women, who constitute more than half of the populations of member states, is an important democratic advancement for the region.
This is reflected in the revised Sadc Protocol on Gender and Development (2016) which provides for the empowerment of women, elimination of discrimination and the promotion of gender equality and equity through gender-responsive legislation, policies, programmes and projects.
The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, has however, exposed some glaring inequalities in stark contrast to what is reflected in the Gender Protocol. These include access to healthcare, jobs and employment, wage parity, basic services, water and sanitation.
Covid-19 has also exposed weaknesses of governance structures in Sadc countries and has moved them beyond their routine calls to set up systems that protect the most vulnerable and marginalised socially, economically, and medically.
There is no doubt that the consequences are devastating, especially for the most deprived such as the older women, women from ethnic minorities and women with disabilities or mental illnesses.
Since the coronavirus is an unprecedented global threat which poses great challenges to governance structures, gender-responsive actions and practices are critical to ensure that this crisis does not impact women more than men.
According to the United Nations, the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing and exploiting vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems.
Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyes, recently shared with the International Gender Champions network his view that: “The response to the Covid-19 pandemic must be gender-sensitive and responsive. Not only are women and children some of the most fragile population groups whose needs can be overlooked in health emergencies, but 70 percent of the health work force caring for those affected is also made up of women. WHO is committed to using a gender lens to continuously evaluate and improve our response efforts”.
An informal trader in Bulawayo, Ms Caroline Moyo who is suffering the impact of the Covid-19 induced national lockdown which was put by Government to contain the spread of the coronavirus complains that gender elements of how women are impacted by health emergencies such as Covid-19 are not well-captured in government structures.
“Our ability to bounce back from this crisis depends on how we include everyone equally. Government should ensure women’s participation in shaping policies and interventions. This is because if more women take part in shaping a new social and economic order, chances are high that it will be more responsive to everyone’s needs and make us all more resilient to future shocks,” she said.
According to gender and development experts, Covid-19 has shown how women in governance positions are highly underrepresented to an extent that even though they do reach those leadership positions, they do not necessarily stay there due to several reasons.
Founding director of Portify Investments, a registered micro-finance institution that helps women, youths, and other groups that are not well served by mainstream financial institutions, Mrs Thubelihle Ndlovu, said the coronavirus pandemic presents developing countries like Zimbabwe with an opportunity to effect systematic changes that could protect women from bearing the heaviest brunt of shocks in the future.
Mrs Ndlovu who is also a business coach and entrepreneur said women should be engaged in the decision-making processes and have representation or leadership roles at the district, provincial and national levels where plans, policies and programmes are being framed to tackle pandemic situations like Covid-19.
“True and sustainable development in developing countries like Zimbabwe and others in the Sadc region requires the full participation and working together of both men and women. Governments should be a key enabler by removing all gender gaps and inequalities and this can be done by including women in decision making positions, ensure balanced representation of women in all sectors.”.
“Sadc member states should also encourage inclusivity by enacting laws that bar all forms of discrimination against women and promote a culture that ensures balanced representation of both women and men in all sectors”.
From her opinion it is clear that special attention should be given to designing strategies for an effective and meaningful involvement of marginalised groups in development initiatives.
Senior researcher at the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, Mr Prosper Chitambara said as a way of removing structural gender inequalities exacerbated by health emergencies such as the current Covid-19, the Government should promote and empower women so that they can fully participate at political, civil, economic, social and cultural levels.
“Some of the barriers that need to be addressed include societal attitudes, expectations and stereotypes regarding the role of women in the family exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the burden of child rearing is on women.
“The Government should implement policies that extend and priotise spending to health, education, social protection and childcare services as well as ensuring access to water and sanitation especially in rural areas. Poor and inadequate water and sanitation is a leading cause of poverty, morbidity and mortality in the country.
“Lawmakers particularly those in developing countries should ensure their governance is inclusive of women, youth and those with disabilities who have historically been marginalised,” says Mr Chitambara.
On how in times of crises like the Covid-19, policies and programmes can be inclusive and more specifically gender sensitive for the benefit of the country, Mr Chitambara said: “Ensure the voices of the marginalised are incorporated in the policies and programmes that are responding to Covid-19. Also, by ensuring that policies and programmes prioritise pro-poor sectors such as health care, education, water and sanitation and social protection.
“Inclusiveness helps to promote collective responsibility, mutual accountability and transparency. Importantly, through inclusiveness the specific needs of various groups can be better understood and addressed”.
There is no doubt that inclusiveness would open new opportunities to women as employees and entrepreneurs and would facilitate the shift from precarious jobs to more stable and better-protected ones.
Mashonaland West Province proportional representation Member of Parliament Goodluck Kwaramba who is also Chairperson for Zimbabwe Women Parliamentary Caucus, said governments in developing countries should proactively work towards equal representation of men and women politics and decision-making positions at all levels such as in cabinet; parliamentary, council and management of the public services.
“Women have suffered from time immemorial due to patriarchal system where boys were always given the opportunity to go to school and girls married off to support the family in the event that the family was in poverty. This made girls and women to be second class citizens.
“More opportunities should be given to women so that they can also occupy leadership positions but this should be on merit.
“This can be done by including women in all governance structures and decision-making processes and leadership roles. When men and women operate at the same level with resources evenly distributed issues of inequality cease to exist,” says Kwaramba.
Some developing countries have undertaken some of the best practices to ensure gender responsive governance during this time of Covid-19 pandemic.
For example, Egypt has adopted a Covid-19 response plan by issuing a policy paper on “Egypt’s rapid response to women’s situation during the Covid-19 outbreak”. It has also initiated a bimonthly gender policy tracker, to track the government’s response to the crisis through a gender lens.
It is vital for Sadc countries to draw lessons from Egypt’s governance system if they want to fully address the livelihood and economic needs of women and their participation in decision making processes.
It is also essential that the decisions and policies being taken also have a perspective that takes into consideration the needs and concerns of the vulnerable and marginalized – especially gender concerns. This will not only provide better outcomes for women and girls but, will also provide better outcomes for everyone.