By Walcott Aganu

COVID-19 has and continues to have devastating impacts on every sphere of life. Across communities around the globe, women and girls have been particularly affected. In Africa, women and girls have largely borne the brunt of the pandemic, as the virus has exacerbated already-existing gender inequalities, laying bare serious fault lines in safety, physical and mental health, education, domestic responsibilities, and employment opportunities. Though death rates from COVID-19 in Africa have been surprisingly low, the virus has massively disrupted women’s lives as decades of progress towards women’s rights and gender equality in Africa has begun to unravel. At the same time, African women and girls play critical roles in responding to COVID-19, including as frontline health care workers, caregivers at home and at work, and as mobilizers in their communities. Given both their vulnerability and frontline roles during the pandemic, women must be at the center of the COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction.

Loss of jobs and livelihoods with no social safety nets

Though job and wage losses have been widespread under COVID-related economic restrictions, women and girls remain the most vulnerable. Indeed, 92 percent of working African women are in the informal economy, leaving them without job security or benefits. Under lockdown measures and without social safety nets, informal workers have had to face the tough decision whether to break the lockdown, risking both their health and legal repercussions, or go without income. But, while the COVID-19 virus left millions of African women and children without jobs, food, and health care, the truth of the matter is that this has been a pre-existing condition long before the pandemic. Creating all-inclusive social policy and cushioning vulnerable families during and after the crisis would go a long way in protecting vulnerable women and families. At the same time, investing in women in small and large business will better secure the financial and economic health of families and economies.

The violence against women and girls

Since the beginning of lockdowns in March of 2020, emerging and anecdotal evidence suggests that violence against women and girls in Africa has increased substantially. From spikes in rape in Nigeria and South Africa to child molestations and sex trafficking in Kenya, the pandemic has further aggravated the epidemic of gender and sexual violence. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around the world, one in three women experienced physical violence, most often by an intimate partner. Africa was no exception. Now, the pandemic and associated lockdowns have led to financial stress and insecurity, inability to flee abuse, social isolation, crowded homes, and reduced support networks. Emerging data shows an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many African countries since the outbreak of the pandemic. In Kenya, for example, calls for help against domestic violence increased by 34 percent during the first three months of the lock down. Similar trends were reported in South Africa and other parts of the continent.

African governments must expedite policy and non-policy actions to root out the plague of gender- and sexual-based violence. This is not a women’s issue; it is a global one that demands urgent action, and men must be part of the discourse on eliminating such violence.

Governments and other stakeholders also need to rethink social and cultural practices and norms that perpetuate violence. Perhaps more important is the need to ensure that response to violence is swift and holistic as laws and policies are implemented.

Disruptions of education and opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of the world’s student population being out of school or university, inflicting most children, especially girls, with a massive learning loss. While the move to online learning has become the new normal for many children, poor educational infrastructure, especially around internet access and electricity, has caused disadvantaged learners from rural, poor, and vulnerable backgrounds to lose access to all learning. Once again, though, educational inequality for girls is sadly another pre-existing condition that requires urgent attention—the pandemic has only exacerbated it. Policymakers must invest in inclusive and equitable education as well as educational infrastructure for all, but especially for vulnerable girls in rural and poor environments. Available evidence suggests that girls’ education in rural areas not only empowers girls by creating opportunities for them but that it also has ripple effects on all outcomes and spheres of life. Loss of education, therefore, has devastating outcomes on all areas of their lives. There is also need to ensure digital equity reaches all vulnerable children, especially girls.

 Women at the center of governance and policy

African women are largely invisible in or missing from decision making, policy, and governance circles. Importantly, both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that, where women do have higher levels of leadership, governments are more likely to respond better to crises in ways that support gender equality. Promoting women’s meaningful engagement in governance and leadership not only has ripple effects on all spheres of life, but also makes economic sense. Investing in women and girls creates long-term social and economic benefits for all individuals, their communities and the world at large.105 Available data suggests that women invest up to 90 percent of their income back into their families compared to just 30 to 40 percent by men.

Women at the frontline

Over 60 percent of Africa’s health care workforce and essential service providers are female, with that number reaching 91 percent in countries like Egypt. Beyond risking exposure to COVID-19,death, and other illnesses, they face poor working conditions, low pay, and lack of voice as medical leadership is dominated by men. African women have been fighting the pandemic in other ways too, for example, by creating shared movements to make masks in Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Uganda, among other countries. Investing in the right health care infrastructure is critical to the well-being of frontline workers, public health, and communities.

The need to safeguard gender equality and support mental health provision

The COVID-19 pandemic has threated to wipe away many of the gains towards gender equality made over the last two and a half decades. Thus, there is urgent need to secure and safeguard these gains not just by enacting innovative policies but also by taking steps to address the economic and social effects of COVID-19, with the twin goals of quickly recovering what was lost and rebuilding better with renewed agency for women. Notably, another acute impact of the pandemic has been increased mental health challenges around the world and especially for women. There is need to invest in Africa’s mental health infrastructure to support women, families, and the public from adverse stress and mental health challenges that have further been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Africa’s responses to COVID and for women must be holistic and all-inclusive

Given the myriad, complex challenges that African women face, African governments must put women at the center of the post-COVID-19 recovery and socioeconomic policies more generally. COVID-19 provides African policymakers, governments, and all other stakeholders with opportunities to effect systemic changes that could protect women from bearing the heaviest brunt of shocks like these in future. The COVID-19 pandemic also provides African governments opportunities to launch a broad, all-inclusive approach to policymaking and rebuild in a caring, humane and sustainable manner. After all, Africa’s ability to bounce back from this pandemic could largely depend on safeguarding gender equality. If more women and girls are at the center of not just governance but also in shaping new social and economic orders, chances are that we could rebuild a more resilient, human, and ethical future for all.