COVID-19 Poses Disproportionate Threat To African Women

As the effects of COVID-19 are starting to take root in Africa, a pernicious trend has materialized: the pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on the health, security, and prosperity of African women.

“Women are the front end and the back end of this crisis; they are our nurses and run many of the small businesses,” said Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). “Policies put in place to respond to the crisis must be in collaboration with them; we must be firm and clear on good governance to safeguard our health systems, ensure proper use of emergency funds, prevent our businesses from collapse, and reduce worker lay-offs.”

COVID’s Global Gendered Consequences

Worldwide, women have suffered devastating setbacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated public responses. A UN report published in April highlighted some of the most troubling global trends. Instances of gender-based violence have skyrocketed as women are made to stay home with potential abusers amidst social and economic stress. They are expected to perform even more unpaid care work with children out of school and healthcare needs rising. Women are also more vulnerable to the financial repercussions of abrupt unemployment and weakening economies, as they tend to make, and save, less money. 

African Women Face Greater Risk from Pandemic

Though COVID-19 appears to be spreading less quickly in Africa, as noted by an Economist article published in May, women across Africa are experiencing many of these same pernicious consequences. 

An April ECA report highlighted African women’s health vulnerabilities across the continent, based on the gendered consequences of West Africa’s Ebola crisis. The Ebola epidemic led to fewer hospital births and a subsequent 75% increase in maternal mortality rates, according to the World Economic Forum. What’s more, funds were often diverted from critical sexual and reproductive healthcare services to address the Ebola outbreak, leaving women with reduced healthcare access. 

These trends are all the more troubling in the context of the already lacklustre healthcare availability and high maternal mortality rates that exist in many African countries. In South Sudan, for example, 1150 mothers died for every 100,000 live births, compared to 17.4 in the U.S. and 178 in India. 

African women’s economic positions are also more precarious than men’s, leaving them more vulnerable to the financial stresses of the pandemic. Around 60% of African men are informally employed, compared to nearly 75% of African women. Women also constitute the majority of workers in other sectors which are most susceptible to economic downturns, such as petty trade and primary production, according to a CARE International report.

Additionally, women make up the majority of frontline healthcare workers and health facility service staff, who are at greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19. Rigid gender roles also relegate women to the role of primary caregivers in their own homes, increasing their risk of exposure.

Other consequences of the pandemic include increased food insecurity, reduced access to water, hygiene, and sanitation (WASH) services, and greater loss of life in conflict zones. These erosions are likely to have a disproportionately devastating effect on the continent’s women. Africa, together with Asia, had the highest incidence of malnutrition in the world in 2018, according to CARE. Even before the pandemic, women were overrepresented amongst the food insecure. Now, with rising rates of poverty, inequality, and marginalization, it is likely that the gender gap will only grow. Likewise, expected barriers to WASH services will represent a greater danger to women, who are typically responsible for hygiene management, and struggle to manage menstruation with limited resources. 

The Way Forward

As COVID-19 continues to spread across Africa, especially in densely-populated, less-developed, and marginalized areas, its social, economic, and health effects will become clear. In all likelihood, these effects will exact a greater toll on the continent’s women, who constitute the majority of frontline health responders. 

As a result of women’s already vulnerable positions and many African societies’ persistent underdevelopment and marginalization, the pandemic threatens to impose severe consequences on the continent’s half billion women.

In order to prevent already stark gender inequalities from growing worse, African governments must take rapid and decisive action. Public health and economic responses must address the differential needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls. Decision makers should consult with civil society and women’s groups in order to craft policies which do not risk widening gendered gaps, and which promote women’s agency. Special consideration must be given to poor, marginalized, and invisible populations, including the poor, disabled, sick, and displaced. Policies which promote resilience, such as safety nets or job training programs, are of the utmost importance. 

In short, it is only by studying and addressing the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that African governments can prevent backsliding on women’s rights, livelihoods, and security.