Women and COVID-19: A snapshot of government policies in the HECA region

Women collecting water from a tap stand in Kalunga in DRC. Photo by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi/Oxfam

Women collecting water from a tap stand in Kalunga in DRC. Photo by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi/Oxfam

By Moreen Majiwa, Gender Justice Lead, Oxfam in HECA

Every country in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) region has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and every country’s experience of the pandemic remains unique. Consequently, policy responses vary across the board.

The overall trends in COVID-19 in the HECA region mirror those around the world which shows more men die from the disease than women, but women and girls are particularly hard hit by the continued socio-economic effects of the pandemic. Despite this, the realities of women’s lives during the pandemic are not necessarily reflected in national policy responses across the region.

This article provides a snapshot of how many countries in the region have taken specific steps to ensure that COVID-19 interventions address the specific needs of women and girls during the pandemic. Across the region, a few countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda) have crafted policies that respond to women’s needs and by and large COVID-19 responses are either gender blind or gender neutral.

Examining national government COVID-19 interventions for their gender responsiveness is important. Gender-blind or gender-neutral policies could unintentionally increase gender inequality, if they ignore the differential risks that women and men face because of the pandemic. Women face high risk of infection due their front-line role in the care economy. These include health risks, reproductive risk, risk of maternal mortality, protection risks for instance increased school dropouts, increased risk of early pregnancy, early marriage, female genital mutilation, increased risk of gender-based violence and risk to livelihoods, particularly for those women in the informal sector but also for women in the formal sectors that have to take up additional care and educating roles.

A newspaper cutting showing an increase in teenage pregnancies in Uganda. Photo by the Daily Monitor, Uganda.

In the HECA region the statistics are clear, the pandemic disproportionately affects women and girls. It will likely roll back women’s rights gains made over the last two decades, unless governments and other actors ensure that COVID-19 responses are gendered, participatory and inclusive.

Women’s representation in National COVID-19 response teams

In the region, women make up less than a third of the COVID-19 response teams even though they are 50% of the population. They comprise70% of front-line health care workers, nurses (in the formal economy) are 76.919% in Kenya, 79.291% in Uganda, 81.343% in Tanzania. This excludes women’s care role in private and informal sectors. Ethiopia’s COVID--19 National Ministerial Committee has five men and two women, Kenya’s National Emergency Response Committee on COVID-19 has fifteen men and six women and in Uganda an analysis of four district-level COVID-19 task forces found that women made up less than quarter of these bodies, 22.5% of members on average.

This lack of representation of women in public health governance particularly during the pandemic accounts for the lack of a gendered response to the pandemic. It goes against the lessons learned from the exclusion of women from public health governance structures during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Government responses to gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health risks

While violence against women (VAW) existed in the region before COVID-19, statistical data from at least three countries shows an increase in the VAW cases due to restrictions on movement, and school closures. Kenya recorded about 40% increase in sexual offenses during the lockdown. DRC’s national police figures for the city of Kinshasa showed about 5% increase in VAW at the start of the pandemic. In March 2020, Uganda recorded 5 fatalities as a result of domestic violence during the lockdown.

Despite these statistics, only three countries in the region, Ethiopia and Rwanda, have made policy commitments towards GBV prevention and response programmes. The Government of Kenya has pledged to use USD 4.2million of the USD 247 million COVID-19 fund appeal to provide life-saving medical treatment, psycho-social support and legal representation in relation to violence against children and GBV. Only two countries have specific policies to ensure continuity in the provision of the sexual and reproduction health care during the crisis. Kenya released its COVID- 19 Reproductive, Maternal, New Born Health and Family Planning Guidelines. Ethiopia has been training community health workers to respond to women’s reproductive health concerns during the pandemic.

More needs to be done with regards to protecting women’s physical and psychological integrity. Including budgetary allocation for national rapid responses to protect women and girls from GBV as well as providing accessible platforms to report VAW and strengthen services for all survivors of domestic violence. There is also need to establish or strengthen existing emergency shelters, and safe houses for survivors of GBV. Strengthening existing special units within the police to deal with domestic violence during this period of COVID-19 and ensuring perpetrators are prosecuted are also crucial.

Gender in national social protection responses across the region

All the ten countries in HECA have launched social programmes to cushion poor and vulnerable groups from the effects of the pandemic. In DRC, the state provided free water and electricity services to all households for two months. Somalia launched its first ever cash program to provide cash transfers to targeted poor and vulnerable households, establishing the key building blocks of a national shock-responsive safety net system. The programme targets 270,000 poor and vulnerable households that account for about 9.6% of the population. In Kenya, the national treasury appropriated Kshs. 10 billion for support of the elderly, orphans, and other vulnerable groups through cash transfers.

Chinow from Fahdi Gaab IDP camp in Somaliland has benefitted from Oxfam’s mobile cash transfer. Photo by Allan Gichigi / Oxfam.

In Ethiopia, the Amhara regional state started providing flour, oil, and sugar to the poor in the city of Bahir Dar. The state also started provided bread and water for those who needed assistance during the stay at home order in the city of Adama. The Addis Ababa City administration allocated 600 million ETB (USD 16,951,900) for purchasing food and other essentials goods.

The government of Rwanda has made adaptations to its existing cash transfer systems. These include the expansion of coverage to an additional 56,000 families over and above 310,000 families already supported. Direct support through unconditional cash transfers to additional families with old age, disability, and critical illness have also been put in place. Expansion of the nutritional sensitive co-responsibilities transfers to include poorer households in the 17 out of the 30 districts where the program is currently operational and subsidising community-based health care ‘Mutuelle’ insurance scheme for the poorest families is another progressive move.

While this is laudable, it is difficult to know if and how many women and girls are reached by these programmes, as they are either gender-blind or gender-neutral. Currently, there is no publicly available gender disaggregated data on the persons being reached by these programmes.

This is problematic as men and women access, respond to and benefit from social protection interventions in different ways. Where social programmes fail to consider different gender dimensions and ensure gender differentiated responses, there is a danger that these programmes will fail to address the specific needs of women and may, in fact, worsen gender inequalities.

Policy recommendations

For Africa Women Day and beyond, it is important for all countries in the region to not only continue to implement already existing policies and programmes to reduce gender inequality but also to take into account the ‘Framework Document on the Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: African Union Guidelines on Gender Responsive Responses to COVID-19’ in their response. The AU framework recommends:

  • Gender mainstreaming and integration: COVID-19 emergency preparedness and response plans as well as long-term recovery plans must be grounded in sound gender analysis, considering gendered roles, risks, responsibilities, and social norms, as well as accounting for the unique capabilities and needs of vulnerable women’s groups.
  • Sex-disaggregated data: COVID-19 responses must be backed by sex disaggregated data. This will guide policymakers and programme designers to track, assess and develop timely gender analysis, which will support more effective and equitable response plans and actions. Sex disaggregated data will also influence the allocation of resources and help in establishing a more inclusive response.
  • Gender-budgeting: Financial responses to COVID-19 should be gender responsive and acknowledge the differential needs of women and support gender-mainstreaming work related to COVID-19.
  • Effective and full inclusion of women: COVID-19 responses cannot be carried out in isolation from recognizing women as agents of change, creators, and innovators and to fully engage them as active citizens.
  • Enforce existing commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment: In these troubling times, it is important to continue to implement existing commitments to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality and women’s empowerment by invoking the enforcement of existing mechanisms such as the Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights, AU Constitutive Act, Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa.
  • Document and share what works, find new and innovative ways of measuring success and affirming good practices: As COVID-19 is not a point in time pandemic and there is likely to be other pandemics in the future, it is important to invest in evidence-based research, learn from best practices and ensure that at all times, women and girls are at the center of the emergency preparedness and response plans as well as the long-term recovery plans to build resilience against future shocks.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Oxfam.