This open letter was co-authored by Mrs Graça Machel, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Dr Vera Songwe and Ms Maria Ramos
COVID-19 has unearthed massive inequalities within our societies and brought to light the unique burdens which women carry the world over.
The allocation of response resources should go towards immediate needs of managing the virus as well as the future — looking to simultaneously dismantle the structural, systemic barriers which reinforce inequality and disenfranchisement.
We have been presented with an opportunity to re-imagine and redesign our society into a vibrant and equitable one.
We must place women and women leadership at the core of the response and beyond.
Covid-19 has caused massive shocks to both informal and formal economies in Africa. The World Bank estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa will see a significant economic decline, and plunge to as low as negative 5,1 percent this year.
Women have been hit hard by this economic downturn. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately by the Covid-19 pandemic.
They have less access to social protection and their capacity to absorb economic shocks is low.
As the economic toll of the crisis is felt, there is also an increased risk that female children will be forced into early marriages, and the number of child marriages and early pregnancies may increase as girls are turned into a source of quick income for families.
Given these shocks to society at large, it is no surprise that our food systems will be dealt a significant blow resulting in the dangerous exacerbation of food insecurity and nearly doubling current levels of widespread hunger.
Covid-19 has disrupted supply chains and thrown the global food economy into disarray. As border closures, production stoppages, and export restrictions limit supply — demand has surged inflating prices and impacting the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. Africa is no exception.
Women are central players in the food chain and key to agricultural output on the continent. Fifty percent of agricultural activity on the continent is performed by women, who produce about 60 to 70 percent of food in Sub-Saharan Africa. Studies reveal that the cost of malnutrition has a tremendous impact on a country’s economic growth.
A lack of adequate nutrition is a key contributor to unacceptably high levels of both maternal and child mortality as well as stunting — and therefore to the loss of human capital for the overall economic, social and political development of the continent.
The fragility of African health systems has been laid bare, women and children suffer the most due to lack of attention and adequate specialised services caused by the diversion of resources to deal with Covid-19. There is now an anticipated surge in child and maternal mortality.
Domestic violence has increased by upwards of 25 percent in some countries as a result of lockdowns. Victims face limited access to protective services during periods of quarantine.
A call to bold action
All responses must take into account the gendered impacts of Covid-19 and be informed by the voices of women.
Women and women’s organisations should be at the heart of the Covid-19 response, decision making and designing of health and socio-economic policies and plans.
An intentional focus on the lives and futures of women and girls is an essential part of breaking structural practices which have been marginalising them.
A system for collecting and disaggregating data needs to be put in place to ensure that the impact of the crisis on women is informing the redesign of fragile and inequitable socio-economic and health systems into fully inclusive, equitable ones.
Government and development partners must implement gender lens economic policies and sharpen the capacity of women as engines of economic growth.
Give women and female businesses direct access to credit, loans, tax and social security payment deferrals and exemptions, and preferential procurement.
Structural barriers to access finance, inheritance and land rights must be removed.
Create and support the enabling environment for Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure so that rural and urban women can contribute to the digital economy and access online platforms to facilitate e-commerce and e-health/education/social exchanges.
There must also be a deliberate plan to invest in women along the local food chains to improve food security.
Response resources should target women-run small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and rural women associations to increase productivity in both formal and informal economies, eradicate hunger and malnutrition.
Local food production must be boosted in order to confront head-on the indignity of Africa importing its food. Food security is a fundamental investment in the building of healthy societies. Equal rights in the workplace, and equal pay for equal work must recognised and implemented.
Build ICT infrastructure for online learning to bridge the inequality divide and retrain teachers on the virtual curriculum so every African child, especially the girl child, has access to quality education.
Efforts to protect girls from child marriage and early pregnancy and provision of safety net resources for households to keep girls in school are also needed.
Strengthen health systems, gradually implement universal health coverage (UHC) and provide mental health services needed as key strategies to the improvement of health systems and citizen well-being.
There is also need to comprehensively strengthen the criminal justice system and increase efforts around survivor support and protection. Prevention/protection efforts must be deemed as essential services and intentional mass media efforts to spur a fundamental change of mindset whereby GBV is rejected and deemed socially unacceptable and intolerable. Covid-19 presents us with unprecedented opportunities for the regeneration of the African socio-economic landscape and the movement towards a just, equitable and sustainably prosperous continent. Let us dare not squander this opportunity for a rebirth.
Mrs Graça Machel is the founder of Graça Machel Trust and the Foundation for Community Development.
Dr Ngozi Okonjo–Iweala is the board chair, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance; AU Special Envoy to mobilise international economic support for the fight against Covid-19 and Former Finance Minister of Nigeria.
Dr Vera Songwe is the executive secretary for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Ms Maria Ramos is the co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals and former chief executive officer of Absa Group Limited.