A call to action: Protecting women’s rights in Sub-Saharan Africa during COVID-19 pandemic

Author: Juliet Nyamao
Human Rights Attorney, Kenyan Bar

On 31 December 2019, The World Health Organisation (WHO) was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. One week later, on 7 January 2020, Chinese authorities confirmed that they had identified a novel coronavirus as the cause of the pneumonia. Following this discovery, China witnessed unprecedented increase in morbidity and mortality rates of victims of the virus. Ultimately, the Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international attention under the International Health Regulations (2005), following recommendations from the members and advisers to International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee for Pneumonia.  Although measures were taken to halt international travel the virus had already spread to other regions of the world including Africa.  According to the John Hopkins University Corona Virus Resource Center, the pandemic has had devastating effects in Europe, Asia and the Americas with mortality rate of more than 100,000 people, with a total of more than 1.7 million confirmed cases worldwide.

According to the WHO Regional Office for Africa Report, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa is more than 10,000 and has caused more than 500 deaths. The infection has increased exponentially and is spreading within diverse regions of the worst-hit countries. For example, Kinshasa the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had limited reported cases of the virus, but presently, more cases are emerging in the other regions of the country. Occurrences in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria are also extensive.

In order to curtail the spread of the virus, many African countries have introduced stringent policies restricting travels to countries that have reported cases of the virus, closing schools, shutting down of public places, imposing curfews and stay at home orders all to protect citizens and restrain the virus. However, these measures have far reaching effect on the rights of women in the continent. Majority of whom rely on the informal sector for their livelihoods, from hair dressers, tailors, street retailers, domestic workers to subsistence farmers and casual workers, women make up a disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal sector. About 74 per cent of women in non-agricultural jobs in sub-Saharan Africa are in informal employment. Working in the informal economy, often leaves women without any protection of employment or labour laws, social benefits such as unemployment funds, health insurance, paid sick leave and paid leave of absence. They typically work for minimal wages and in hazardous conditions. The situation can be worse during this pandemic period, since women are at the front-line and are majority of caregivers as well.

Thus, with so much uncertainty and a foreseen economic instability, women are disadvantaged and at a greater risk of being economically dependent on their spouses, which further exposes them to other dire risks.  Research shows that calamity aggravates gender inequality. Every so often, pre-existing inequalities, poverty, discrimination, sexual and gender-based violence are worsened in humanitarian situations, exposing those who are already susceptible at further threat.

To safeguard the rights of women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, and protect them against violence, countries ought to consider gender-based violence services as essential services. Accessibility of domestic violence shelters, designated gender desks at police stations, open medical facilities offering reproductive health services, and the judicial mechanisms should be enhanced. These will ensure the pandemic does not inadvertently lead to emotional turmoil, physical trauma, economic dependence, and loss of lives during the confinement period. Therefore, states should prioritise the needs of women and girls, considering high percentage of sexual and gender-based violence deaths perpetrated by intimate partners.

Additionally, governments must take into account the plight of the most vulnerable informal sector workers, who most times reside in informal settlements, that are often times crowded with poor sanitation and housing challenges, with a higher likelihood of infection due to worries of social distancing compounded with inadequate access to medical facilities which may lead to a much higher rate of morbidity and mortality in these areas.

Furthermore, women in the informal economy are the majority of the labour force in these economies. Therefore, specific initiatives should also be considered to ensure they receive either financial or non-financial assistance during this period, to sustain themselves and families. Due to the unique nature of informal settlements, greater attention is required to prevent an emergency of other life-threatening calamities in these areas. Although, some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have introduced measures to ensure sustained access to financial resources including tax relief measures, majority of individuals in the informal sector may not benefit from these initiatives, a gain to the formal sector. Therefore, it is critical for policy makers to consider strategies that ensure all members of the society are considered and not left behind. Consequently, involving women in decision making at both the national or county levels through elected women representatives and civil society organisations will uphold a robust response to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, enforcement of these measures must conform to the rule of law and international obligations on protection of human rights. Excessive use of force to implement the polices would be in contravention of state’s international and regional human rights obligations.  Police officers need to consider their policy and training, regarding pandemic-related stay at home orders, curfews and state of emergency directions. Even so, officer discretion, common sense and good judgment are important in these tough times. Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region have reported incidents of brutality meted upon innocent civilians.  The right to life and bodily integrity, must be of paramount importance and be protected.

Ultimately, to uphold and alleviate the rights of women and girls during this period requires concerted efforts of both the public, civil society and private sectors. A holistic multisectoral human rights-based approach must be considered to ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in international, regional and national laws are not violated during this period. COVID-19 is not enough justification for governments to use excessive force to enforce curfews and stay at home orders. Non-derogable rights must be protected and not taken away arbitrarily. Commitment to these rights must be strictly vital by the demand of the situation; “they must be temporary, necessary, proportionate and limited to what is required to counter specific threats justifying the given measure of derogation.”  Additionally, all initiatives must  also cater for the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the society.

About the Author:

Juliet Nyamao is a human rights attorney admitted to the Kenyan bar. She received her LL.B. from Moi University School of Law (Kenya) and LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Centre (USA). Juliet completed her fellowship in Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa at Georgetown University Law Center.  She is currently a consultant and gender expert.

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