ICSD plenary spotlights women’s rights and empowerment jeopardised by Covid-19

ICSD plenary spotlights women’s rights and empowerment jeopardised by Covid-19

15 July 2021, Johannesburg, South Africa – In countries like Brazil, South Africa and Zimbabwe, women were the demographic group most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and simultaneously received the least support from social welfare programmes, setting back gender-equity goals around the world, according to three experts presenting research at the 22nd Biennial International Consortium for Social Development Conference (ICSD), hosted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), 13 – 16 July 2021.

Chairing the plenary session at the virtual conference was Professor Leila Patel – the DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Welfare and Social Development, and the founding director of the CSDA. Patel was joined by three respected scholars, namely:

  • Prof Daniela Casale, from the School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Prof Natasha Borges Sugiyama, an Associate Professor and political scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and
  • Dr Mildred Mushunje, a social worker and Deputy Chairperson of the Southern Africa Social Protection Experts Network

Patel opened the session with a reminder of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) five: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, and Agenda 2030 which states that achieving gender equality by 2030 “requires urgent action to eliminate the many root causes of discrimination that still curtail women’s rights in private and public spheres”.

She noted with concern how the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women placing further burdens on women, including unemployment; unequal distribution of unpaid care work; rising rates of hunger, depression and anxiety; widening education disparity; and a marked increase in gender-based violence (GBV).

The academics followed Patel in presenting their research initiatives. Prof Casale took the audience through the methods and findings of the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), a five-wave rapid phone survey-based study of some 7000 South African adults. Herein it was revealed that two-thirds of the people who lost their livelihoods during the “hard lockdown” were women, and although many work opportunities had been regained since, women’s employment is still down some 8% while men’s employment is back to pre-Covid levels.

This situation was then compounded by schools closing, with women stepping up disproportionately to fill the care gap, as well as the fact that women were less able to access social support relief measures like Unemployment Insurance and Temporary Employee Relief Scheme (TERS). Additionally, the exclusion condition of the grant “top up”, Casale said, amounted to women being “effectively penalised” for being the primary caregivers in the country. In summary, she said, the findings demonstrate the “danger of designing gender-blind policies”.

Prof Sugiyama unpacked her research into the social protection models of Brazil and South Africa, effectively arguing that cash transfers designed to advance child welfare can elevate women in home and social systems, promoting three dimensions of empowerment.

The dimensions chosen approach “empowerment in terms of the expansion of assets and capabilities that given women more control over their lives,” Sugiyama said. Specifically this includes whether women adult beneficiaries experience heightened independence and financial decision-making; if they enjoy greater bodily integrity to negotiate – for example – family size, and resisting intimate partner violence; and finally a psycho-social dimension that explored improvements in a person’s sense of agency.

Through listening to women in conversation and focus groups, over decades of field research, the study found that “social grants have triggered positive dynamics for the women beneficiaries we spoke to in both countries, even though the programmes were not intended for this particular purpose”.

Dr Mushunje painted a stark image of the impact of Covid-19 on already rife GBV in Africa, particularly SA and Zimbabwe. She showed how tactics like shutting borders stripped women of some of the few breaks and protections they had against GBV. These ‘breaks’ previously gave women access to both work opportunities and the benefits that flow from those, as well as putting literal distance between themselves and abusers.

She demonstrated how programmes that promote income generation and bodily integrity amongst women – such as the example of a workshop to produce reusable sanitary wear for sale and use – and the integration of innovations like community champions and psycho-social support groups, can mitigate these. “More research is needed on the intersection between Covid-19, poverty, and GBV,” she concluded.

Collectively, these make up some of the complex social and structural challenges requiring transformative solutions and innovations from the social development community including those attending the conference, Patel said. The session then shifted into a question and answer session with a live, albeit virtual, audience.