Jessica Horn

As the threat of COVID19 emerged into full global view, African women’s rights organisations started to raise red flags around what effective responses needed to consider-but would likely leave out. They were prepared. Not with the practicalities of hand sanitisers, virtual work arrangements and food distribution plans, but with the familiarity of what crisis means for women, and the knowledge that if we fail to take into account women’s needs, we are not going to survive this.

Generalised catastrophe may well be the “new normal” for the privileged, but it has been the backdrop of African women’s organising for generations. In the two decades of The African Women’s Development Fund’s operations, our grantees have worked to try to get one step ahead of epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, to mobilise to end war in their countries and communities, and pick up the social, political and economic pieces in its aftermath. Beyond headline disasters, grantees have also worked persistently on the quieter but no less deadly threats of economic collapse and everyday economic precarity, and the reality that the patriarchal violence against us as women costs us our emotional and economic wellbeing, and sometimes also costs us our lives.

So it is not surprising that as COVID19 started to touch the continent, AWDF grantees were already outlining a political agenda for the response, warning of possible consequences if we fail to be attentive to the fact that health crises are always gendered. In the words of a press statement issued by the Nigerian Feminist Forum, “it is imperative that we ensure that gender-sensitive responses are implemented, so that the cumulative effect of the current crises are not paid by women, girls and, the most marginalised in IDP camps, rural and urban shanty towns, [the] disabled”. Staff of Southern African advocacy platform Genderlinks flagged in a Mail and Guardian article, that women constitute a majority of health sector workers and domestic workers in South Africa, and also carers in the family- all forms of care labour that increase the risk of exposure to the COVID19. This is a similar truth across the African continent.

As lockdowns and social distancing began to be proposed as a disease control measure, African feminists spoke up to raise concern about the implications and the difficulties, in particular for the most marginalised. In a think piece on social distancing OluTimehin Adegbeye, journalist at The Correspondent and graduate of AWDF’s African Women Writer’s Workshop reflects that for a city like Lagos, “the idea of social distancing is not just alien to us, it is impossible for social and economic reasons too.” Where a majority live in cramped physical conditions, survive through high-contact economic activities like petty trade, and rely on each other for help and shelter, the idea of just staying indoors is simply not viable.

Of equal concern is the patriarchal truth that homes are often not safe for women or girls, and indeed for Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender women being asked to stay in closer proximity to homophobic and transphobic family members. Grantees like Rape Crisis Cape Town have acted fast on this understanding, expanding their hotline services in anticipation of an increase in violence as women are locked down with their abusive partners. There is also important work to track and make visible new challenges posed by lockdowns for different communities of women. Regional feminist advocacy platform FEMNET have invited African women to share lockdown concerns on Twitter using the hashtag #inclusivelockdown – an ongoing social media discussion that has surfaced real crisis for women with disabilities in particular.

The gendered threats posed by lockdowns and curfews have also come from state authorities. At the start of the COVID19 lockdown in Uganda for example, a number of women’s organisations including grantees Strategic Initiatives for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) and Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women (MEMPROW) raised the alarm about physical attacks on women street vendors after a Presidential directive around trading in street markets.

In broader view, the COVID19 pandemic shines a global spotlight on the deficits of widespread privatisation of health services across Africa. As Crystal Simeoni, Economic Justice Lead at FEMNET, argues “healthcare requires proper investment horizontally in a way only public sector can provide. It means a holistic approach to healthcare that provides for safe water to wash hands to stop the spread of the disease, it requires doctors that are decently paid and work in safe conditions as well as research that is well-resourced”.

As the pandemic progresses, we remain committed to supporting this agile African feminist response to crisis, aware too that the insights shared by our grantees in this pandemic moment are also setting the compass towards the structural change that needs to be prioritised once the immediate health threat is over.

Jessica Horn is Director of Programmes at AWDF. She tweets @stillsherises