South Africa

OP-ED

Covid-19: Womxn in South Africa more vulnerable than most

A protestor holds up a placard in Cape Town, 04 September 2019. The protestors demanded the South African government clamp down on gender based violence following a week of brutal murders of young South African women. (PHOTO: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

Our government has once again not done enough to ensure that it progressively realises the basic human rights of poor black people, especially womxn. We should learn by now that any recourse and precautions taken without the consultation and guidance of the womxn themselves will not be effective or address this pandemic.

As Covid-19 spreads rapidly across the globe, there is no vaccine yet and since it is a new coronavirus, as humans, our immune systems have not had a chance to build up enough antibodies to fight it. But what does Covid-19 mean for womxn living in South Africa?

In 2020, womxn remain the face of poverty and human rights violations in South Africa. As a country, we have a very specific socio-economic context that cannot be dismissed and we fear that our government and president have not addressed the necessary socio-economic realities for Covid-19, especially in the way it will affect poor black womxn living in rural and peri-urban contexts. For these womxn, it is impossible to adhere to safety precautions, like for example, a black womxn living in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha who uses a communal toilet and communal tap with no access to warm water or electricity.

A domestic worker who is employed in a private home falls within a particularly vulnerable group as she will continue to clean the home of affluent persons having travelled outside of the country. The employer will have the necessary medical funds and access to secure speedy access to health, whereas she will not only struggle to access adequate healthcare, but will go home to infect children and other dependants living with her. 

Domestic workers travel long distances to reach their place of employment and further expose themselves to risk of infection as our public transport has deteriorated in its condition and in relation to safety. Domestic workers work in private homes with lack of proper accountability and regulation within the private space. Employers are likely to have domestic workers stay home during this time without consideration of the necessary compensation. This will leave a large group of womxn and their families entirely destitute and dependent.

Farmworkers and farm-dwellers are another vulnerable group in society. They live in unhygienic conditions on farms without access to water and electricity. These are people far removed from supervision and working on private land with few resources and access to heed to the national safety precautions against Covid-19. These persons live with weakened immune systems and pre-existing conditions due to their working environment where they are not provided with the necessary protective gear and work in far areas without ablution facilities. These conditions make womxn who live and work on farms more susceptible to falling seriously ill should they contract Covid-19. These womxn live in close proximity and are not physically able to self-isolate from their children and families.

Womxn who live on the street and find themselves homeless live without access to adequate shelter, water, electricity or food. Their immune systems are most vulnerable as they sleep in the cold and contract diseases and viruses more easily. Some turn to alcohol or drug abuse, which further compromises their immune system. They have no facility to wash hands or their bodies and do not have access to healthy food and medication to build their immune systems against infection.

In reality, self-isolation for people who live on the Cape Flats, informal settlements and rural areas is nearly impossible. In families of colour you find, on average, three to six people living in the same household in a Wendy house, shack or one-bedroom house. There is no space to keep a family member separate to monitor their health or isolate them should they show signs of an infection. An additional problem is the risk and increase of domestic violence during this time. Public interest organisations, service providers and even courts have closed their doors in the best interest of their own staff, family members and service users. Womxn who are encouraged to self-isolate are in reality subjecting themselves to the risk of domestic violence with little to no access to justice.

The continued spatial make-up of the Western Cape reflects apartheid-era spatial segregation where people of colour live on the urban periphery with access to little or no basic services. As a result, these persons form the most vulnerable group in a pandemic because of their poor living conditions with already burdened access to health, safety, policing and socio-economic needs. These areas are riddled with crime and already overburdened with resource capacity for general assistance to communities.

I fear that our government has once again not done enough to ensure that it progressively realises the basic human rights of poor black people, especially womxn. They continue to be the drivers of systemic violence against womxn who live in underprivileged backgrounds and communities and without applying a gendered and feminist lens to this pandemic, our government will be unable to address the real threat of Covid-19 and protect the citizens of South Africa, especially womxn. 

We should learn by now that any recourse and precautions taken without the consultation and guidance of the womxn themselves will not be effective or address this pandemic. And the announcement made by the president on Sunday shows that our government has not seriously considered the vulnerability of persons who live in underprivileged socio-economic circumstances, especially womxn.

As an organisation, the Women’s Legal Centre has looked at the safety of womxn who work at the organisation not only as staff but also as individuals who have intersecting forms of risk based on race, class and socioeconomic backgrounds. We realise that we cannot only address our office space but have to look to the personal and living conditions for staff members who may not have access to water and other forms of sanitation. We have had two consultations with all womxn in our office to inform the approach we take as an organisation, which has included upgrading IT and acquiring new equipment which will allow all staff members to work remotely from home. 

For those staff members who still have to work from the office this week, we have ensured to secure private transport for those members so that no one has to take public transport for work purposes and ensured that all members have access to the internet, which allows them to conduct work from home without exhausting their private devices and internet usage. These precautions might be extra to what most employers think is necessary and increase the organisational costing, but a gendered lens looks beyond the immediate needs of the employer and evaluates womxn’s needs based on their lived reality and positionality in society.

We recommend that all employers take an intersectional and gendered approach when assisting employees during this time of employment. Employers of domestic staff need to secure safer transport for staff members or allow them to stay home with full remuneration until there is certainty on the virus and its containment. 

We urge the president and our government to consult with womxn and persons living in poorer and disadvantaged areas to determine the specific needs of womxn in communities and to develop a broader strategy of how to deal with the safety of black womxn in South Africa. 

We further urge the president to address the socio-economic needs of transport, housing and access to safety for womxn and vulnerable groups during this pandemic. This may take more resource allocation and capacity, but it is time that our government put the needs of its people first before the needs of tourism, economic wellbeing and self-interest. DM

Chriscy Blouws is an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre and heads the Women in Work programme. The Women’s Legal Centre is an African feminist legal organisation established in 1998 to advance the substantive rights of womxn through strategic litigation, advocacy, legal advice and rights-based education.

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