Centering Women’s Voices in COVID-19 Response and Recovery


Content warning: this post includes content on gender-based violence.

Rebecca Shadwick, Oxfam global campaigner, spoke with Rosebell Kagumire, editor at African Feminism, about the pandemic’s impact on women, freedom from physical and structural violence, and women’s leadership in the recovery.

As a Pan-African feminist, what does a specifically African feminism teach us about women’s leadership in crisis?

Crisis, whether natural disaster or health crisis, never affects people the same way – because of our identities and roles that communities have carved out for us.

Often when we think of leadership, we think of who is making national decisions, who is on TV, who is visible. The system is designed to make certain people more visible than others. But that doesn’t mean the most visible are the most effective leaders.

Women are leading, but the way the visibility is structured does not represent the people that are saving us the most in situations of crisis.

The health sector is dominated by women, they are at the heart of care economies worldwide and more so in Africa. So, it’s very important to know that women are leading on so many fronts – in the labor wards, in responding to COVID, in awareness and all aspects of public health. These are the everyday people making the difference to whether we manage the crisis or not – as a nation, as families.

It is important to understand that even with the voices of a few women in positions of formal power in response, in many ways countries are still very male and patriarchal-driven.

Sudanese women walking from a bazaar near Khartoum, Sudan. Photo via Shutterstock

You talk about the liberation of women in the sense of being able to walk free in our own bodies, freedom from violence. From a Pan-African perspective of pandemic impacts, what norms need to change?

We are operating in a society that has not given women their freedom – freedom from any kind of violence (physical and emotional violence, control). Anything the pandemic found, it magnified.

In African states the response in terms of violence against women is still very limited, because we are socialized in ways that excuse this violence. Societies remain heavily invested in protecting reputations of families, protecting violators and shaming the victims. There’s very little accountability.

For instance, newspaper articles about girls raped or reporting high levels of teenage pregnancies during the pandemic fail to put the focus on the violators and accountability.  Because the structural marginalization of girls is upheld – from families to schools to communities.

In one way or another, we constantly take part in how violence is sustained in society. If you’re not actively taking steps to deactivate this violence, you contribute to it, because you ignore it. Identifying and challenging it should be the job of everybody.

I talk about freedom from a feminist perspective, that the personal is political. People tend to talk about freedom in a way that focuses on civil liberties – can I protest, can I talk about the government? For a lot of women on this continent, we’re not even there yet – because we can’t even protest in our own homes. Our own choices are not respected. That journey is very slow and the pandemic is rolling it further back.

We cannot separate freedom of women from the societal freedom that we claim to fight for. Any freedom that does not give women and minorities their freedom is not freedom at all. 

In pandemic response & recovery, what shifts do you see are needed to address gendered violence in the structural or economic sense?

The pandemic has exposed that the policies we had were not related to people’s needs, including freedom from violence. How do we address economic violence? How do we address the economics of an informal sector where the majority of women in Africa work?

I know that it’s difficult: I ask for accountability for violence on women’s bodies from a state that violates its own citizens. It’s a big ask. But we need to start somewhere. The way states are run, they often downplay violence against women.

Think about the care economy: who is taking care of the sick? Who’s leaving their job? This workload has always been there, but now it has more than doubled. It is impacting women’s and girls’ health and wellbeing. And this is before we add the physical and sexual violence within homes that women and girls face in such times.

Who determines a woman’s economic trajectory? Gender roles that allow or don’t allow certain things impact a woman’s financial freedom.

It comes back to social norms around economics: who can own land, is there trust in decisions made by women, who has access to markets, who is allowed to leave home to try a new job when one is lost? It starts from the very communities these women are upholding. 

What are the key areas to address when we talk about COVID response or recovery plans?

We must look at how discriminatory policies are, even when they appear to be neutral. It’s important to respond in ways that are conscious of inequality, conscious that crisis does not impact us all the same. When we talk policy, people pigeon-hole responses. ‘On gender we’re doing this’ – but gender is not some ministry, gender is encompassing of all different things and aspects of our lives, whether it’s financial issues, access to health or justice, and more.

We need to look at how gender intersects with other oppressions, like capitalism, that we’re struggling with. Recognize a lasting legacy of colonialism that we’re dealing with: we’re still functioning in colonially-constructed states, and they still respond to our needs in a colonial way.

A young woman with her children walks across the crop fields in Senegal. Photo via Shutterstock

One last question: what lessons can you share about how we can balance including people’s voices without overburdening already oppressed groups?

The reality is that marginalized or oppressed people have already been doing the job. They have been explaining what the problems are, why things are harmful, why we need change. That is already a lot of labor!

Their learning and their thoughts are already out there – seek that out, look at what is already recommended! This is not a new conversation for most of these communities – for women, for minorities, for Black people. These are things people have been talking about for a long, long time, and warning of these inequalities and the impact on their lives.

Move to action. Shift power. Find ways in which the power can be closer to historically marginalized people, for them to determine their own destiny and choices. Otherwise, you continue the same policies that are marginalizing them. We have to be open to understand ways marginalization functions, and to addressing that inequality in ways that do not put the labor on those already marginalized.  

Include more people, but not just including: make the room different. Make yourself uncomfortable if you’re in the dominant power. Things don’t change just by bringing people from a marginalized community into a room. It happens by moving away and giving them the space to lead – and seeing them as legitimately knowledgeable and capable.

Emphasize diversity in whom we are hearing, whom we are engaging with and supporting. Know that we are still unsettling enduring legacies of colonialism. The problems we have talked about are rooted in how colonialism reshaped gender and destabilized our lives. For me, that is very, very important.

Lastly, understand African women in their diversities, and make room for that diversity: for trans women, sex workers, poor women, women from ethnically marginalized communities. When we say ‘Pan-African’ it means all people. Pan-African Women’s Day means recognizing the different identities of African women. Women are not homogeneous, and certainly not in Africa where you have over 2,000 ethnicities and cultural heritages!

This is an excerpt of a longer conversation; you can also read it over on  Oxfam Gender Justice. This blog post is a contribution to the conversation pandemic response & recovery.