As the coronavirus cuts a swathe through the entire world, leaving tens of thousands dead in its wake, many women in South Africa must endure a second virus for which there are minimal eradication efforts.
Whereas the 21-day lockdown is a bold attempt to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, the period of isolation at home for the entire nation also brings into sharp relief the plague of poverty, domestic abuse and gender-based violence that thousands of women must contend with on a daily basis for years.
While the coronavirus is trending on all social media platforms, it collides with an epidemic of increased socio economic, psychological and physical stress for women. In South Africa, 46% of women are unemployed and 63% of Black women are living below the lower poverty line.
Global pandemics, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters bring the world together to work towards a solution. However, while women suffer physical assault, psychological abuse, social abuse, financial abuse and sexual assault, no social reform laboratories are occupied with ridding this scourge permanently.
A woman who is the face of thousands of her sisters has to work in a city or province far removed from her family home. Her children are taken care of by an elder maternal woman. Amidst the coronavirus lockdown, she is sent home without pay for the duration of the shutdown. She undertakes the 18-hour journey in a taxi with no sterilization or social distancing, not by choice but by necessity.
She travels with a conflicted mind of two deadly viruses. She struggles with a double-edged sword for survival – the risk and survival from the coronavirus and the risk and survival of her children and family from not knowing where their next meal will come from. There is no choice of buying hand sanitisers, gloves, masks or food. With the lack of income for three weeks, or it could be longer, what choice does this woman have?
A woman who is the face of thousands of her sisters has to remain in her rural settlement tending to her grandchildren, as her daughters work in other provinces. In the spirit of Ubuntu, she takes care of other children in the area while their mums work. She has no access to electricity or a constant supply of water. She awaits her social grant to buy necessities for the home. She has to take public transportation to the nearest town in order to pick up her chronic medication, with no inclination of this demon we know as the coronavirus. Her ignorance of the virus is no fault of hers, as she is entangled in a world where she acts as primary caregiver, and is responsible for many children. The lack of basic and consistent services and no technical knowledge of social media or the news locates her socioeconomic need greater than that of the coronavirus.
A woman who is the face of thousands of her sisters has to remain in lockdown with a partner she sometimes depends on financially. A partner who in turn physically, verbally and sexually assaults her. The woman anxiously awaits her partner to leave the home knowing that it is her only time of safety. With many of the abusive perpetrators not having their usual outlet of alcohol, drugs or gambling during the shutdown, abusing their partner will be their only outlet. For the woman who is the sole breadwinner of the family, as is the case in many homes, she will get abused for not working or earning during lockdown. Attempts to explain the government support are futile to the severe and fierce bouts of rage. These are women who endure torment and agonizing anguish daily, whose years of daily bruises, broken bones and shattered spirits, feel like a fate far worse than that of the coronavirus.
The root cause of gender-based violence lies in fraying social structures and in unequal power relations between women and men. However, a variety of factors on the individual level, the family level, and at the level of community and society, often combine to raise the likelihood of violence occurring.
Commendation must go the Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, who recognised this critical implication of the lockdown and said that a Gender-based Violence Command Centre will be fully operational through Skype via “HELPMEGBV”, a toll-free line (0800 428 428) and a call-back service that victims may use by dialling *120*7867#.
The women who are the face of thousands of their sisters would much rather face the lethal coronavirus, because there is a chance of survival and it is a defined period where a vaccine is imminent to stop the spread. She is stuck in a continuous cycle of subjugation located in poverty and abuse, a cycle whereby she will become the elder maternal figure taking care of the young children. Her destiny has been written from childhood, to run around the wheel in a cage just as her maternal predecessors did. Her fate is constructed from birth and she does not fear coronavirus, a possibly temporary virus, for she stares in the face of the worst known virus. Decades of her physical, emotional, psychological and sexual pain and trauma can in no way compare to a temporary global contagion. She faces the greatest pandemic of being a woman.
So, let’s consider a virus far more serious as we sit in our safe, comfortable homes during lockdown, having adequate food to survive three weeks. Where our gravest concern is disagreeing with our partners or occupying our squabbling kids. Where we can leave our homes protected in gloves and masks, educated by the overflow of information disseminated to protect one’s self against the deadly coronavirus. Where our only woe is to keep the pandemic at bay amidst the rising numbers and deaths in the country.
In order to understand how women survive in times of global or national emergencies, it is important to contextualize the ordinary daily experiences that shape women’s lives and highlight her vulnerabilities, which form the bedrock upon which a specific crisis is imposed. Recognising the catastrophic proportions of this global pandemic, consideration needs to be taken for policy making in terms of future humanitarian emergencies. Poor communities, women and psychological cases are often invisible to policy makers. Although South Africa offers adequate support for women, the disparate statistics of unemployment and income for female headed households must be urgently addressed.
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