Unmasking the Burden of Covid-19 On Women

For a single mother in Garissa, Covid-19 paused her small business that puts food on the table. For the domestic worker in Nakuru, the pandemic meant no job and no food for her children. For countless women across the globe, apart from losing income, the unpaid care and domestic work burden exploded.

People from all walks of life including super power presidents and casual labourers, are falling ill with Covid-19. The disease has not discriminated; it came and everyone faced unprecedented challenges.

There were massive job losses, shrinking economies and loss of livelihoods. Though more men are infected, women have borne the brunt of its economic and social fallout.

Coincidentally, 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action; it was expected to be a seminal year for gender equality. Unfortunately with the pandemic, the little gains made in the past decades risk being rolled back. It has deepened pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which have in turn, amplified its impacts.

UN report

A report by the UN shows that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. Thus, there will be 435 million women and girls living on Sh200 or less a day.

The story of the Garissa mother, above, plays out in other parts of the world too.

Since the first case of Covid-19 was announced in Kenya, more women than men in informal employment have lost their jobs, majority working in the service sector including hospitality and health.

Again, with people working from home, domestic workers were fired, 80 per cent of whom are women. Then as quarantine came and people were kept at home, schools were closed and the burden of unpaid care and domestic work increased.

For Winnie Ayuma, a mother living in Nairobi, the epicentre of the Kenya’s Covid-19 outbreak, the shift from a working mother to enforcing TV rules and staring at an unforeseen future as a home-school teacher hit her hard.

“I was used to my 8am to 5pm job, then getting home to take on my mom role; but now I feel like I have toddlers again,” says the mother of three aged 11, nine and seven. “They are all over me, all the time and it’s hard to meet everyone’s needs.”

Many working mothers, like Ms Ayuma, have had to balance full-time employment, childcare and schooling responsibilities.

“There is the cooking, cleaning, feeding the kids and then there is my office work,” says Ms Ayuma who despite living with a husband who is equally working from home, has to do most of the house chores.

GBV on the rise

Meanwhile, studies show that 11 million girls, globally, may never return to school by the end of Covid-19, if evidence from previous crises is anything to go by. There has been an increase in teen pregnancies with some girls defiled, engaged in teen relationships or exchanged sex to satisfy a pressing need like sanitary towels. The pandemic put a stop to formal schooling; and with the online learning available only to a few, girls may be forced to skip out on their studies to help with household chores. A widening education gender gap implies, among other things, a significant reduction on how much women earn.

Lack of sufficient education and economic resources among women increases the risk of gender-based violence (GBV). The financial, social and health stressors of the pandemic, and the close confinement during lockdowns, exposed them to a higher risk of violence.

GBV cases increased by 92.2 per cent between January and June last year, according to National Crime Research Centre, prompting President Uhuru Kenyatta to task the agency to probe the cases. The agency established that 71 per cent of GBV cases recorded during the period were perpetuated on women and girls.

In April, outgoing Chief Justice David Maraga pointed out a rise in sexual offences, saying they constituted 35.8 per cent of cases recorded since Covid-19 was first reported in Kenya.

The CS Ministry of Public Service and Gender Affairs Prof Margaret Kobia also reported a 42 per cent increase in the vice, noting that sexual abuse cases formed most of those reported via the ministry’s toll free number 1195.

The pandemic paused a risk on women’s reproductive health. Women shunned hospitals fearing to contract Covid-19.

Sulekha Hussein from Marsabit County bled to death while giving birth.

Still births

“Ms Hussein had sought the services of a traditional birth attendant to help her deliver at home,” said Mary Marangu, a nurse at the Marsabit County Referral Hospital at the time.

“By the time she was rushed to the Marsabit County Referral Hospital, it was too late. She had lost too much blood and died.”

Ms Marangu noted that more women were coming to the facility with complications, noting an increased number of still births since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Kenya. Majority of the expectant mothers, she said, were sceptical of going to hospital, fearing the dreaded coronavirus. Curfew restrictions imposed by the government to curtail the virus only served to exacerbate the situation.

“The few taxis that operate during curfew hours charge exorbitantly, way above what most mothers can afford.”

As we will, inevitably, emerge from this crisis, is there a silver lining for women? Covid-19 is an opportunity to reset expectations about workplace flexibility.

Hopes blossom

Elizabeth Wanjiku has had it rough since she lost her job in March when Covid-19 came calling.

The mother of two was a grader at a leading flower farm in Naivasha, but the ripple effect of the pandemic left her job hanging by the thread. She was finally let go and life has never been the same again.

When the Nation caught up with her in Karagita area, Ms Wanjiku had spent the better part of the day seeking menial jobs, albeit unsuccessfully. That has been her distressing story since she was declared redundant.

“I have been relying on menial work like washing client’s clothes among other low paying jobs, for upkeep,” she opens up.

When she employed, life was neither rosy for the woman in her late 20s. She earned a paltry Sh7,000 despite working close to 14-hours a day.

“I used to report to work at 6am and work until 10pm exhausted,” explains the mother of one.

For three years, she got used to the routine, at times engulfed in an emotional roller-coaster, but bereft of choices.Ms Wanjiku’s monthly income was budgeted for on a piece of paper tucked in her pocket.

“I used Sh1,500 on rent, Sh600 to settle nursery school fees for my nursery school child and between Sh800 and Sh1,000 for shopping,” says Ms Wanjiku.

The remaining cash was for savings and fare. At times the company bus would leave her behind, forcing her to use a boda boda at a fee.

Turned away

Her husband though supportive, was also struggling with no steady source of income. He would go for months without a job, relying on his wife’s stipend.

“Life has turned from bad to worse… at times both of us lack a place to ply trade with the situation having been exacerbated by coronavirus,” adds Ms Wanjiku.

Since she lost her job, she has not benefited from any government assistance.

“Money from the government?” she pauses, “that is a sick joke.”

Ms Wanjiku says she approached an NGO for help but was turned away because she is above 25 years of age.

A self-taught hairdresser, she hoped to use her inherent skills to attract funding from the NGO but after being spurned, her self-esteem hit rock bottom.

She now has nothing positive forthcoming from her several ventures.

Her dream is to start a small business selling beads and other ornamentals, but lack of capital has derailed her dreams.

“If I can get someone to loan me money, I would comfortably start a business and perhaps turn-around my financial fortunes,” adds Ms Wanjiku.

For now, she continues walking from door to door, hoping to wash clothes. On a good day, she will take Sh250 home, but the days are rare.

Lost opportunities

Ten months later, 45-year-old Margaret Njeri is still waiting for a call from her former employer.

“She told me she would contact me once Covid-19 is contained. I keep checking my phone to see if she has called. I desperately need a job,” cries out Ms Njeri a single mother of two, with the eldest married.

Ms Njeri who lives in Githurai, Nairobi with her 15-year-old son, worked as a house manager in Nairobi.

“I was looking after the children while she was on a business trip. When she returned soon after the confirmation of the first case of Covid-19 in March, we stayed indoors for about week then she dismissed me. She said she could no longer afford me due to financial constraints,” explains Ms Njeri who earned Sh15,000.

From then on, life became a hip hop dance. She has suffered discrimination she describes as “wonders of a lifetime.”

“Until now, getting a job is only by God’s grace. I can go for three weeks without any laundry work,” she says.

If she gets, she earns between Sh800 and Sh1,200 depending on the work done. But the pay comes with a price; perseverance.

“Some people cannot allow me to even touch their doors. They see me, they see Covid-19,” she says.

“They bring all the; dirty clothes to the veranda from where do the washing. Once done, they wave me goodbye and send the money via Mpesa. It’s total inhumane treatment, but what do you do?” she wonders.

She has become clever in her expenditure; apart from skipping meals to ensure her son has enough to eat, she has diversified her revenue streams. She sets aside Sh1,000 to buy either five packets of sweets or second-hand baby clothes.

When she has nothing to do, she hawks the merchandise earning some profit to feed her son and pay her rent in instalments.

“I have never hawked sweets before but circumstances forced me. Sometimes I sell, sometimes I don’t. But I don’t give up. I tell myself I must sell to buy my son fruits. I don’t want him to lack a thing,” she says.

Her greatest worry now is how to raise Sh30,000 school fees and shopping for her son who is in Form Two, when schools open.

“I’m only waiting on God to do something,” she says. Her optimism on securing a job is unbeatable.

“I have strong faith that I will surely get a job very soon,” says Ms Njeri a trained housekeeper.

Hard hit

When 2020 clocked, Esther Nyambura Gathogo was optimistic that the New Year would offer her business better than even the previous year.

The founder of Jowath Events Solutions that deals with private, corporate and national events looked forward to a fulfilling year. She had, in the previous year, imported state-of-the-art tents and chairs.

“I had put all my resources into expanding the business and looked forward to a fulfilling year,” Gathogo tells Nation.

Come March, however, Covid-19 struck, crippling the events industry when the government banned social gatherings to contain the spread of the virus.

Ms Gathogo who specializes in graduations, weddings, dowry ceremonies, funerals, baby showers, birthdays and national and county government events says that the first six months after the ban were the toughest; she had to shut down completely.

The events planner says she was also forced to lay off her staff including eight permanent ones and 30 casuals.

She, however, says she had to dig deeper into her pockets to pay rent and offer food to the permanent staff as she could not afford to lose them.

“Getting good and reliable staff who you can fully trust to do a perfect job even in your absence is hard. I couldn’t afford to lose the eight as they have been a wonderful team,” she said.

The event planner says her staff is the biggest asset she possesses as they help her ensure clients are happy and fully satisfied with her services.

Events cancelled

She reveals that the pandemic also saw tens of events cancelled, forcing her to refund the deposits that clients had already paid.

Then money to pay rent for the space she has leased to keep her event equipment and to make ends meet became a nightmare. At one point she even entertained the thought of selling off some of her tools of trade to keep herself and the family going.

“It became impossible to pay rent as there was no business. I thank God I have a very understanding landlord who understood me,” she says.

To survive, she ventured into gas selling business, which she says was not a walk in the park.

Since October, Ms Gathogo says events have slowly started resuming and they are getting a few clients though many people are still apprehensive.

She is, however, optimistic that the pandemic will soon end and business will come back to normal.

Husband left

Covid-19 served as a parting shot for 48-year-old Anjela Mbula’s domestic and construction jobs.

Everything about her and her life changed.

For 24 years, the resident of Gatina area in Kawangware slums, Nairobi, has survived on those jobs to raise four children – two of her own the others, left behind by her deceased sister.

She was assured of not less than Sh300 each day. Then Covid-19 came and took away that income. Not just hers, but her husband’s too.

“Alienda and akiendanga (He left and has never returned),” she says in Swahili.

Her husband, a casual handyman in construction sites left one morning in April and his whereabouts is unknown.

At the time, the government was enforcing strict containment measures including a 7pm to 5am curfew, inter-county cessation of movement and stay-at-home or work from home order.

Businesses closed or cut back their operations. Those who offered domestic services were sent away by employers for lack of money to meet their employees’ wages.

In all these, more than 1.7 million Kenyans found themselves with less income or jobless. Ms Mbula and her husband, make up the count.

Either way, her husband opted to desert his family.

“His phone has been off since then. He couldn’t stand the pressure of providing for us. He left without saying goodbye. But it is better he left, instead of us remaining together and quarrelling each day,” she says.

80,000 beneficiaries

For seven months, Ms Mbula walked on her head. Getting a job was a nightmare. A week passed by, no job! Another and another!

“When I finally got one, the employer could not come closer to me. I was treated like I already had Covid-19. However, I simply did my job, earned my Sh200 or Sh250 and if lucky Sh300,” she shares.

She buys food not to feed her children to their satisfaction but to just warm their stomachs till the next time she earns. They have one meal a day.

She ran into rent arrears. Luckily, her landlord wore her shoes, pardoning her from demanding the full payment of Sh3,500 each month.

In October, an angel knocked on her door. She is among the 80,000 beneficiaries of a stipend from a consortium of non-governmental organisations including Oxfam Kenya and Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (Creaw).

Out of the Sh7,660 she received, Ms Mbula spent Sh1,000 to start a grocery business at an open air stall.

The business is slow though. She is still struggling to make a good profit to cover at least two meals a day.

“I walk around hawking traditional vegetables that remain from the stall,” she says.

“But things are thick. Sometimes a day goes by without selling even a bunch. And the vegetables are perishables. I make losses. So from time to time, I’m forced to scout for menial jobs to make ends meet,” laments Ms Mbula.

In a good day, she says, she makes a profit of Sh60, all of which is spent on buying food.

“The government should give women grants to run profitable businesses to sustain their families. Not loans! Give us grants. I look at my children and wonder what next?”,,,

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