Socio-economic implications of Covid-19 on women, girls

BY TAFADZWA BHANDAMA

MARCH is International Women’s Month and since women recently commemorated the International Women’s Day on March 8 2021 under the global theme ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World’, I decided to examine the effects of covid-19 on the economic well-being of women and girls in Zimbabwe.

Historically, pandemics have had an impact on the economic well-being of women. Depending on social set up, a pandemic can have negative or positive effects on women as the Black Death plague will illustrate.

The Black Death plague killed more than 75 million people worldwide and more than a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1353. The Black Death Plague happened when Europe was practising the Feudal system where Kings owned all the land in Europe, which they allocated to their noblemen.

According to Mark (2020), the nobles had serfs who worked the land, which turned a profit for the landlord who, in turn, paid a percentage to the King. The serfs earned nothing for their labour except lodgings and food that they grew. Serfs were some kind of slaves and worse still, there was no upward movement or promotion in the feudal system.

Before the occurrence of the Black Death plague, women were not held in high regard. However, after the plague, women gained a higher status. They used to work lowly jobs as serfs and had no say in directing their lives.

The lord would direct whom they married and not even her father, who was also under the authority of the lord, had a say on the matter. Owing to the high mortality of men due to the Black Death plague, women could now own land and were allowed to continue with their husbands’ businesses in the event of death.

In addition, women were also accorded greater liberties in choosing a mate. Mark (2020) suggests that women could now run guilds, shipping, textile businesses and taverns. They now also owned farmlands after the pandemic, something that was unheard of during the pre-Black Death plague era.

Depending on the social set up, the comparative morbidity and mortality rates between men and women, pandemics may have different effects of varying intensity on women.

In poorer economies, which cannot provide social security or unemployment benefits, Covid-19 has had disproportionate negative effects on women.  According to UNWomen, this is because women tend to withstand the worst of pandemics because they earn less, have fewer savings and have higher numbers in the informal economy, as is the case with the Zimbabwean economy.

The jobs that women undertake have less access to social protection, if any. This explains why in the local economy vendors, who make up a larger proportion of women, ended up breaching Covid-19 public health response protocols, in order to fend for their families. The need to put food on the table far outweighed the fear of coronavirus infection.

The impact of the pandemic on women also depends on other factors, which include:

  • The bias against women in the employment selection process, as depicted in the employment numbers in Zimbabwe, which confirms that more men are employed compared to women. This probably dates back to historical practices of earlier generations that preferred to send only the boy child to school, particularly when resources were scarce. Others, then, and to a significant extent, even now, actually felt that sending the girl child to school meant enriching their son-in-law; hence, girls were always segregated against in terms of access to education. This scenario must have contributed to higher employment figures for males compared to females as shown below. This is against the fact that women constitute 52% of Zimbabwe’s total population. Lack of steady income for women and work stoppage during national lockdown spells a higher magnitude of deprivation for women headed families.
  •  Types of profession: For example, domestic workers had to make do without a wage for the duration of the pandemic as most of them were compelled to return to their homes when the economy was placed under lockdown. Their employers were working from home, hence could afford to do house chores on their own. This type of employment does not provide for paid leave and other benefits that formal jobs provide for employees.

Formally employed mothers who now worked from home had to assume dual and sometimes, multiple professions during the lockdown.

These include their usual jobs, that of an unpaid house minder in addition to becoming teachers for their children (forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to abandon conventional classroom schooling, but still obliged to sit for public examinations). Self-employed single mothers in the informal sector went without income as their small businesses were closed during lockdown.

Women-owned small business enterprises plying their trade at green markets and other informal markets such as Mupedzanhamo, Mbare Musika, Sakubva and across the country experienced setbacks in their businesses. Hardest hit are those who sell tomatoes, cabbages and avocados, among an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

Perishable fruits and vegetables were left to rot in the fields and at market stalls as consumers took refuge from Covid-19 through quarantine, while the police dutifully restricted movement in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Government health protocols.

This had a knock on effect on household incomes as both rural and urban dwellers were severely curtailed. It also meant that for households in urban dwellings, there were challenges to pay rentals, let alone putting food on the table. In the rural set up, women who relied on horticulture ventures were affected through reduced harvests as tilling, planting, harvesting and the eventual marketing of their produce had to stop in response to covid19 protocols implemented to fight the pandemic.

  • Conditions of service: Reduced employment benefits as employers were adjusting employment benefits in order to avoid retrenching notwithstanding the low pay and poor working conditions exacerbated by Covid-19 induced challenges on women.
  • Women headed families were also badly affected as they had to grapple with bringing food on to the table on their own.
  • Type of industry: Women were affected as they mostly work in the service industries that were intensely impacted by Covid-19 and these include schools and day care centres, hotel and catering industries, entertainment, arts, distribution and vending.
  • The social set up of the society as is the case in Zimbabwe: There are certain chores that should be done by women while men go to work. Lack of an efficient water distribution system on the one hand, and the Covid-19 induced requirement for improved cleanliness on the other, implied that women and girls had to go and queue for water at community boreholes for longer hours than before, taking up time for other responsibilities, such as online lessons for the girl child where these were accessible.

Some of the challenges that women experienced during covid19 have a double whammy impact on their welfare and their future generations. This is because the disadvantages that they faced have a tendency to accentuate into bigger challenges in their lives so much that they trap them into a poverty cycle. Due to lack of savings and social protection schemes for the informal sector, the challenges that women experience will not disappear after the pandemic. For instance, loss of income due to loss of employment or the collapse of their informal sector businesses implies that women headed families cannot afford basic health and education services.

Already, this secludes their offspring from the participating in the mainstream economy, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.

Non-availability of e-infrastructure also affected girls during the pandemic. School children took a long time without going to school and girls who did not have access to online lessons had excess time on their hands and ended up engaging in “extra curricula activities” that made them fall pregnant. It has been reported that at least 4 959 girls fell pregnant, and 1,174 cases of child marriages were recorded between January and February 5 this year according to Xinhua. The policy process should be applauded for allowing the affected girls especially those who fall pregnant to continue with their education so that they are not left behind.

However, being a mother, and mostly likely a single one and the demands for energy, commitment and time for their education, will most likely translate into a greater proportion of those that fall pregnant dropping out of school and being condemned to lives of poverty and/or dependence for their rest of their lives. This is not to mention the stigmatisation that will follow both the pregnant girl child and their families and the real risk of suicides and depression.

According to Winnie Osulah (2007), schoolgirls who become pregnant have fewer opportunities to complete their education after childbirth and have fewer opportunities for socio-economic advancement. Indeed, once they have dropped out of school, they usually never return to school to complete their education after childbirth.

In times like these, government has to implement policies that ensure that the economic growth process leaves no one behind because inclusive growth is about leaving no one behind.

Zimbabwe has and is still implementing gender mainstreaming policy measures towards realising gender equality in the country. The experience of the Covid-19 and its accentuated effects on women calls for the integration of gender dimension into the formulation and implementation of policies that mitigate the negative influence of the pandemic on gender disparities. Going forward policies should be implemented to promote equality between women and men in an effort to at least try and eradicate discrimination so that the economy attains some measure of inclusive economic growth. Hopefully, the Covid-19 vaccination programme will normalise the situation so that everyone goes back to normal life at least the new normal.

Bandama is an economist by profession and training. She possesses an in-depth knowledge and understanding of Macroeconomics and Real Sector Economics which skills she obtained while working for public and private entities. Her portfolio brief includes economic research, data analytics, policy formulation, analysis and advocacy. She is currently the Chief Economist of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and writes in her own capacity.