On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic-a classification used once an epidemic grows in multiple countries and continents at the same time. Most countries in the world have registered at least a COVID-19 case with numbers in Africa, as of this week, hovering over 10,000.
The first case of the ‘novel’ coronavirus was reported on March 22, it was a 36-year-old male who arrived from Dubai. President Museveni subsequently announced an extensive list of measures to stop the spread of the virus, including closing the Ugandan borders both land and air, Closure of all institutions of education, a ban on both public and private transport, 14-day lockdown followed by a 7 pm curfew. Resident district commissioners (RDC’s) were given new powers as the sole granters of permission for the sick to access health centres.
Pandemics have very uncanny ways of magnifying all existing inequalities between class, gender and race, in any capitalist patriarchal society.
Conversely, for the case of Uganda, deadly virus or normalcy, violence against women is unceasing. With the ban on public transport and curfew, business came to halt as the media reported hundreds of traders stranded in different towns with no means to head back home, families stuck home with no food. According to the Uganda Bureau of statistics 2016 report, womyn were more engaged in the trade (55 per cent) and manufacturing (51 per cent) sectors compared to men.
The country then saw the impromptu, massive deployment of combined army and Police forces, armed with both guns and batons. Staying true to their colonial legacies of brutality towards the very people they are supposed to protect, social media was awash with images of police beating women vendors. Media published images of old women, young men all arrested for failure to adhere to the curfew time. As I type, Uganda has reported 52 COVID-19 cases and zero deaths.
Women in patriarchal systems of power
This coronavirus pandemic has found key political institutions at the centre of response led by womyn. Dr Jane Aceng is Health Minister, Janet Museveni doubles as Minister for Education and wife to President Museveni, Amelia Kyambadde is Trade and Cooperatives Minister, and Rebbecca Kadaga is Speaker of Parliament.
It is accurate to say that at the forefront of this fight is women, coincidentally, the most affected also happen to be women. There is no question that women presently hold a considerable amount of power – or at the very least, are seen to be holding a substantial amount of power during this pandemic.
The critique then is, how this power is yielded in a patriarchal system that is centred around men.
Do individual women hold power when it comes to decision making?
Has the feminist cause gained from the rise of individual women? In many ways, even with crucial institutions led by womyn, we continue to see increased violence against womyn.
The violence that women continue to face transcends class and authority, from the clobbering of women vendors to assaulting womyn in charge of enforcing the presidential directives. For example, in Bunyangabu district, the chair, Mr James Ategeka assaulted Ms Jane Asiimwe, a Resident District Commissioner on duty, while she was attempting to enforce one of the lockdown measures.
Violence against women exacerbated
Meanwhile, the lockdown enforcement comes with routine addresses by the president, these addresses happen at 8-ish. Just like the regularity of the presidents’ address, the media has consistently reported on the violence and helpless situations womyn find themselves as a direct result of the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew.
The Daily Monitor newspaper last week ran with a picture of a womyn in Kampala market during the night. She is clothed in a blue-grey hoodie seated on what looks like a sea blue tent, a checked lesu (wrapper) covering feet, next to her is a mosquito net and behind her are sacks of food. Her face is emotionless. This picture clearly illustrates the plight of many market womyn under the restrictive corona measures, who cannot walk home because of the curfew, so their only choice is to camp in the market.
Ugandans on social media reacted to the picture, sympathizing; however, President Museveni praised the womyn, citing her situation as model behaviour to traders during the lockdown. The president never raises any questions on hygiene or even her security.
“I was very happy to see a picture of a woman who made a make-shift bed at her work stall, and put up a mosquito. The struggle against COVID-19 is a war, not convenience. We are fighting for survival”.
According to the 2018 Uganda Police annual crime report, the crime rate decreased by 5.2%; however, there was an increase in homicides, rape and defilement cases.
By the end of 2018, a total of 17,682 persons were victims of sex-related crimes, out of whom, 15,469 were female juveniles, 277 were male juveniles, 1,849 were female adults, and 87 were male adults.
The same report highlights an increase in defilement (rape of minors) cases to over 15,000, in 2018, when it comes to domestic violence, a total of 13,916 cases were reported.
A report by WHO highlighted that one out every three women globally experience violence, making it the most widespread human rights abuse among human rights.
Furthermore, On March 31, President Museveni again addressed Ugandans, this time round he casually dismissed domestic violence on live television.
“The guidelines are simple, you either respond to health or childbirth, we are not dealing with all problems, that some are drunk and has beaten his wife if you ring me and I am on duty, I will say you finish that one from there,”
This response is comparable to permission granted for all abusers in Uganda to go ahead and hit their wives, after all, there is no consequence of such violence.
While research in China, Italy and South Korea showed that the virus kills more men than women, in less obvious ways, the coronavirus disproportionately affects women. The lockdown side effects like emotional labour, that comes with childcare because of school shutdowns, to other house chores that overwhelmingly fall onto women. Not to mention the maternal health of expecting mothers who suddenly have no access to hospitals.
It is likely that violence in this COVID-19 time, will kill Ugandan women before the virus does.
An essay titled The Pandemic is a Portal, Indian author Arundhati Roy in the Financial Times talking directly to the reader she says:
“Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, this one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”
Reading this last paragraph, I wonder, is there a possibility of a world where women can walk with light luggage? Is a new world free of violence against all women?
Jackline Kemigisa is a feminist journalist, podcaster and researcher. She is fascinated by the intersections of technology, media and women. Jackline, in past, ran a hybrid publication called Parliament Watch, a platform that monitors and updates on Parliament of Uganda, East African Legislative Assembly. Areas of interest: feminisms, media, history, decolonization, democracy, and governance. Find her on Twitter @JackyKemigisa