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01 June 2021

Covid-19 in the Global South: how women are leading the charge to combat heightened inequalities

Alice Sverdlik

How have women-led grassroots organisations tackled the gendered impacts of the pandemic in the Global South?

Women in Global South News story

Essays on equality – Covid-19: the road to a gender-equal recovery

Read the essay collection

Across the Global South, the pandemic has led to a profoundly gender-inequitable combination of declining paid work with increased caring burdens and limited childcare. Women are overrepresented in precarious informal jobs and often work in hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality and domestic work, while men in the informal economy have been better able to recover after Covid-related lockdowns. Furthermore, women have overwhelmingly shouldered the rising care burdens throughout Covid-19.

Such care duties are especially challenging to fulfil when facing dire shortfalls in water, sanitation, and energy, which again disproportionately affect women and girls. Low-income residents often rely on unclean energy sources for cooking and lighting that contribute to respiratory illness, as well as heightening women’s difficulties when caring for the sick. Similarly, women and girls are especially burdened by inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Not only do WASH deficits result in gendered time poverty and stymie women’s efforts to maintain hygiene during the pandemic, it is also difficult to socially distance when queuing for water, particularly in dense settlements. Women and girls may even risk gender-based violence as they walk to access WASH and energy, including in refugee camps, informal settlements, and other insecure settings.

Covid-19’s gendered impacts can differ markedly based on local contexts, policy interventions, and intersectional disadvantages. But these effects remain hidden due to the lack of disaggregated data – for example, on age, sex, ethnicity, disability, migration status, and other socioeconomic factors – that may combine to heighten inequalities in the Global South.

Women-led, grassroots responses in urban areas

Community-based organisations have generated a plethora of creative, collective responses to alleviate the pandemic’s health and economic impacts. Many women-led grassroots groups helped to fill gaps by improving handwashing facilities and delivering water to elderly or disabled residents, such as in Freetown’s informal settlements. To address rising hunger, women-led community kitchens proliferated in Lima and many other Latin American cities. Community radio, TV, and social media have all helped to raise awareness and combat misinformation on Covid-19.

Even when governments have sought to address Covid’s impacts, community-led organisations can complement these initiatives and better reach vulnerable groups. Drawing upon their well-established social networks, women’s organisations in Mumbai’s informal settlements shared information widely and developed strategies to enable social distancing at local markets. In Kerala, India, a women’s network called Kudumbashree worked with local governments to create over 1,000 community kitchens across Kerala, as well as special kitchens serving migrant workers. Women’s cooperatives in Nepal partnered with local governments to distribute emergency relief, and funds managed by these cooperatives also helped to provide livelihood loans.

Grassroots organisations have opposed exclusionary official responses during Covid, such as crackdowns on protests and informal markets, while also pushing for improved service delivery. Many civil society organisations in Zimbabwe, including women's organisations, mobilised against state corruption during the pandemic and protested even in the face of violent repression. The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe created a Covid Response Working Group focused on tackling domestic violence, insecure livelihoods, and food insecurity; it also sought to expand access to sexual and reproductive health services.

As the pandemic’s health burdens escalated in Brazil, women in Rio’s favelas have continued delivering cooked food to vulnerable residents. Other bottom-up initiatives in Latin America have developed community quarantines, helped install public water-taps, and advocated for more inclusive government interventions.

Refugee-led groups have also made several contributions to help reach marginalised households and enhance awareness of displaced people’s needs. For instance, refugee-led organisations in Kenya and Uganda translated information about the pandemic into native languages, lobbied Covid taskforces to include refugees in food distribution and raised awareness about the challenges facing women and girls.

Towards an inclusive, long-term recovery

Many initiatives are still nascent and require further support, but may provide the foundation for an inclusive, gender-equitable recovery. For instance, grassroots organisations have repurposed local spaces and influenced official strategies with the potential to foster lasting transformations. Kenya’s slum-dweller federation has mapped community isolation areas and contributed to government guidelines on isolation. In Dhaka, residents are now cultivating hundreds of small-scale fruit and vegetable gardens (often in vacant lots), helping to reduce food insecurity and generate new sources of income.

To meet the needs of people with disabilities, community organisations in Indonesia and Sierra Leone's informal settlements built accessible sanitation facilities; distributed Covid information in several formats; and delivered supplies to disabled residents. Significantly, these groups only recently prioritised the needs of people with disabilities – Covid provided an opportunity to create such novel alliances.

Digital communications strategies are creating links between activist movements and supporting alternative modes of organisation, with potential to tackle multiple inequalities. In Mexico, a “feminist trading platform” has used social media to facilitate the exchange of goods and services while also fostering women’s solidarity. For instance, therapists can provide consultations in exchange for clothes, food or other items. Meanwhile, in Brazil, a Human Rights Observatory was launched in April 2020 with participation from feminist organisations, LGBT+, black, and other social movements to collect information and combat Covid-related rights violations. In turn, such network-building activities may strengthen longer-term struggles for gender equality and social justice.

Emerging initiatives may help to revalue women’s central role in the informal economy and also address their precarious working conditions. During lockdowns in the Dominican Republic, unions of domestic workers convinced the Ministry of Labour to provide them with social benefits. In South Africa, informal food vendors were declared as “essential” during Covid. Soon after India's lockdown was initiated, the city of Ahmedabad partnered with informal vegetable vendors in the Self-Employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) to deliver fresh produce using e-rickshaws, which successfully reached low-income customers. In Ghana, food traders known as “market queens” helped clean markets so that sales could continue during partial lockdowns – local officials have built trust and successfully facilitated dialogues with these workers.

To address Covid’s array of challenges, it will be essential to recognise women’s agency, build upon emerging alliances, and challenge multiple forms of disadvantage. Key priorities for a feminist recovery include efforts to a) enhance access to food, WASH, and universal healthcare; b) combat violence against women; and c) tackle deep-seated social and economic inequalities. Policymakers also urgently require more detailed data – on age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity and more – to support a recovery that can simultaneously address intersecting inequalities and advance gender justice.

Alice Sverdlik is a Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development.