The COVID – 19 pandemic shows us just how much women may be left behind

By Mpilo Shabangu

"Close to 75% of women in Africa are expected to be in vulnerable employment by 2020” -The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s 2017.

As many governments, heads of states and social institutions continue to call for an urgent need to deal with the unprecedented and complex challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of the virus has also seen these very same institutions needing to claim fearsome reactions from the public. Now more than ever is the time for leaders to not be afraid of pushing the envelope in planning for innovative ways which will see them move beyond the normalized systematic structures of inequality that currently exist within our societies and will now be exacerbated by this global crisis.

As the precautional measure of social distancing find more people working from home, let us reflect on these five possible ways that may help ensure that women and girls are not being left behind as the world sets itself to deal with a humanitarian crisis that we just may never have thought possible.

Crippled small business enterprises and small-scale traders

The vast majority of Africa's small-scale traders are female, up to 70-80 percent in some cases. Cross-border trade is often their only source of livelihoods: according to an ILO study, about 60 percent of non-agricultural self-employment of women in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from trade. The implications of boarder shut downs on female cross boarder traders would mean that the restriction in the movement of goods could potentially see them having to cease business operations. This begs one to wonder whether the precautional measure enforced by a swift spread in the virus could see women and their families be exposed to the shortage of food.

Spike in the Cases of Gender Based Violence and School Drop Out Rates for Girls

Megan O'Donnell writes that in times of pandemic, women in quarantine are faced with increased risks of intimate partner violence. Girls staying at home from school in some parts of the world may not have the opportunity to return.

As previously mentioned above, most working women on the continent are engaged in unpaid care work, lack access to decent work or are paid lower wages. All this points to the realities that occur when women lose their financial independence and girls’ access to opportunities for furthering their lives.

Increased Poverty

Globally, women are in the majority of the world’s poor, but the African woman is disproportionately more affected by poverty. Eighty percent of the women in Africa live in the rural areas where they have less access to such basic needs as health care, education and other public facilities or services. With women’s livelihoods at such risk the conditions of poverty may just worsen.

Image by William Iven from Pixabay

Widening digital gender gap

There has been accelerated growth in the increase of internet usage and accessibility globally. However, Africa remains the only continent whose digital gender gap has continue to widened since 2013[i].

Many African women still do not own a smartphone or have access to the internet, whilst, their male counterparts on the other hand have long been able to surf the web. As of August 2019, some 200 million Africans were still offline - either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Living in a pandemic that has seen a great deal of information taken by Heads of States on precautionary measures required disseminated through online platform many women and their families may be more pronged to infection as they either do not have all the necessary information on prevention or get the information much later then the general public that is on digital platforms.


An article by Deutsche Welle reports that only two out of three women own a cell phone and barely, one in three use their mobile data on a regular basis. Seven out of 10 online mobile users are men. This phenomenon of inequality commonly termed as the 'Mobile Gender Gap,' which is currently at 41 percent has significant political and economic consequences for women especially as it relates to the survival of their businesses.

None of the above-mentioned points would be the case if governments had been more intentional in effectively tackling the forms of inequality that underlie these realities. As O’Donell states if the latter was done, “then a virus could just be a virus — assuredly deadly and destructive from a health perspective – but without inciting increased abuse, poverty, and lost prospects”