Coronavirus: Intergenerational Issues (Part 2)

Women-headed households and Covid-19

By Elena Moore 16 April 2020

Two women carry firewood as a thunderstorm looms overhead near Moshana village in South Africa's North West Province. (Photo: EPA/JON HRUSA)

In the second instalment of a three-part series, Elena Moore looks at multi-generational households headed by women in employment. The first article examined the possible impact of Covid-19 on old age grant-receiving households. If disease enters a household, it will have different impacts depending on the family, family assets, levels of domestic violence and levels of poverty.

Unlike the deadly impact it could have on the elderly, Covid-19 might not be as fatal for an employed “middle generation” (at least those who have no underlying health conditions). However, it will come with significant caring and financial responsibilities at a time when many jobs will be lost (given the prediction of up to a million jobs lost.)

Consider this example: Zoleka is a 45-year-old teacher, the middle generation in a three-generation household of six people — two children and four adults. As the only income earner in the household she is financially responsible for everyone. Following her sister’s death in 2005, Zoleka took on the primary financial and practical care for her nephew Siya and adult niece Zandile. Zoleka’s aunt moved from Eastern Cape to Cape Town to care for Siya and Zandile and Zoleka pays her R700 for this as the aunt has her own two young adult children who are unemployed in Eastern Cape and do not receive state support.

We see how the aunt’s home, in rural Eastern Cape, is linked and interdependent with Zoleka’s household. Furthermore, Zoleka’s household is linked to another household (in Eastern Cape) as she remits R1,000 per month to another aunt, who is not yet receiving an old age grant. Zoleka is the financial and practical shock absorber of a care crisis in this family and she is assisted by her co-resident aunt with practical caring responsibilities.

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Zoleka’s situation is not unusual in South Africa, where women-headed households  make up approximately 40% of households. Women-headed households are also among the poorest, with a high number of residents and low levels of income. If a pandemic amplifies existing inequalities, we need to examine how Covid-19 will affect women-headed households, specifically the economic well-being of the women, children and extended family members they support.

As the pandemic unfolds, more women will spend more time looking after and caring for family members, whether it is young children, the ill or the elderly. Already, women in South Africa spend eight times more time on childcare than men.

The closure of schools and creches has a differential effect on women, who provide most child care. Moreover, the World Health Organisation guidelines encourage home care for Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms, given limited healthcare facilities, and it is not unreasonable to assume most sick people will be cared for by a woman.

Caring needs in households will include maintaining high levels of sanitary standards to prevent spread of the infection, such as regular washing of clothes, household items and increased food preparation etc. Women will perform these tasks alongside others they are required to do. Women in both formal and informal employment will have to take time out to care for relatives or cover the cost of care.

Evidence indicates that for most black South African children, women, who include the biological mother, the grandmother or aunt, provide both physical and financial care. This is despite the fact that women-headed households have, on average, a lower income and higher unemployment rate than male-headed households.

But there is considerable heterogeneity among women-headed households and their ability to access resources to combat the impact of Covid-19 will differ. Findings from my research show that women in formal employment, who take a pay cut or a period of unpaid leave, are seeking financial assistance from employers, banks, loan sharks and spaza shops (deferred payment) to tide them over. Needless to say, this money will have to be repaid when they return to receiving an income and, therefore, their future monthly financial resources will drop.

Covid-19 is also affecting women’s ability to earn in the informal sector, thanks to social distancing and the five-week ban on non-essential commerce. One mother aged 52 who participated in the research was caring for three children in her home for payment of R1,500 a month. Since the closure of schools, she has had no income and widespread job losses mean it is unclear if she will get back her child-minding work after the lockdown. She now relies on the old age pension of her mother, 76, to support the household, which includes three adults and three children.

While the three children receive a child support grant, the old age grant is used to buy food for everyone. Pre Covid-19, the mother received regular financial support from her eldest son, who was working at Telkom and living with his wife. He has now lost his job and is unable to continue this support. As time goes on, more family members will rely on the meagre stable income that remains. The ability to seek employment or return to informal employment will be severely hampered by caring obligations that arise from the pandemic.

Many will argue that existing social transfers have a strong gender dimension as most recipients are women. However, most grants are paid to women as carers of dependents. Almost all child support grants, two out of three old age grants and one half of disability grants are paid to women. Women might be the main beneficiaries of government grants, but scholars have criticised how children’s needs are seen as the basis of women’s claims, rather than women making rights claims on their own behalf.

Women are the shock absorbers for not only practical care but the financing of care. Being responsible for and managing financial and practical caregiving is a source of hardship.

For the majority of women-headed households in South Africa, the pandemic will only deepen existing inequalities and government strategic plans for responding to the pandemic must be grounded in strong gender analysis, taking into account gendered roles, responsibilities and dynamics within the family and society. DM/MC

Elena Moore is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.

The first part of this series looked at challenges in old age grant-receiving households. The second part of the series focuses on the gendered and racialised nature of familial care that will be magnified in the wake of the pandemic. The third article (published on Friday) examines the change in family responsibilities in multi-generational households since the lockdown.

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