The Inequalities Beneath the Pandemic

Coronavirus is an immensely defining global health crisis, individuals and states have borne the effects of the pandemic in varied measures. In addition to the health crisis, the pandemic has exposed shortfalls in what was deemed a ‘normal’ status. It’s easy to point out and tie the many glaring challenges to the pandemic but it’s important for individuals, communities and states to identify the root causes of these challenges. Are the challenges/effects new or just magnified by the pandemic? 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic-and the need for social distancing and lockdowns- a higher number of people have been faced with financial challenges and subsequently lack of basic social and economic rights. 

The measures taken by states to curb the COVID-19 have exposed enormous flaws in our systems; the unbridgeable inequalities between the haves and the have nots, inequalities among genders, the abdication of state’s responsibility to respect and protect economic, social and cultural rights- the right to housing, shelter, food, social security, the highest attainable standard of health among others. 

The most significant impact of the pandemic has been on the social-economic front. In East African countries, more than half the country’s population has no access to any form of social protection. These countries have high percentages of their populations working in informal sectors and mostly as casual labourers. Based on the OECD (2017) report on social protection in East Africa less than 10% of the population across the region has a social insurance cover, meaning that an overwhelming majority of today’s workforce population has little or no income protection either now or in preparation for their old age. 

One of the alarming facets of the pandemic has been the exacerbated inequality for women and girls in communities.

In addition to the overall challenges, women and girls have had to bear a greater burden during this pandemic. As highlighted in the UN policy brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, this pandemic has seen an increase in unpaid care work mostly provided by women and girls, before COVID-19 women were doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, with the pandemic the number has certainly increased; domestic violence as girls and women are sheltering-in-place with their abusers; the loss of employment for women who hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs among others.  

We have so far had many calls by various bodies to governments to ensure that the response to the crisis is cognisant of gender inequalities and responsive to the needs of women and girls but to what level have governments taken this in consideration? The number of domestic violence cases has had almost a parallel increase to the number of COVID-19 cases; the above UN policy brief gives an average of 25% increase in domestic violence cases during the pandemic while Kenya has reported a 34% increase of domestic violence cases since the report of coronavirus in the country. The response to COVID-19 cases is clear and in the public domain, but what is the response to domestic violence cases? 

Civil society organisations in the East Africa region and to some extent, private sector bodies have taken it upon themselves to respond to cases of domestic violence. Offering shelters to survivors of violence, opening up toll-free numbers and setting up call centres, offering psycho-social support and counselling to survivors; the measures are commendable but are they an end in themselves? Survivors of gender-based violence need comprehensive care and response. Most of which is entirely in the domain of governments- reporting to law enforcers, getting medical attention, getting proper documentation needed to instigate legal redress and access to legal remedy including aftercare. Governments have a duty to offer the above services to all women and girls. 

Most of the gender-based violence cases reported are rape, defilement and intimate partner violence. This leaves out numerous cases that are categorised as gender-based violence but due to lack of awareness community members don’t recognise them as such and barely report on them. These include; survival sex, transactional sex, sexual exploitation by community members and employers, increased harmful practices like early and forced marriages- especially for girls in disadvantaged and hard to reach areas. 

Arguments for consent in these cases have been raised but barely do people interrogate the meaning of consent.

Lack of jobs and social protection by the government, particularly during this pandemic period, has led women to mental coercion for survival and transactional sex and has limited women’s options and alternatives leading to sexual exploitation. These amount to gender-based violence cases and governments have a crucial role in addressing them. 

Responses by governments and other relevant bodies on the impact of COVID-19 have assumed a homogenous community and barely look at the differentiated impacts on all people in communities. This approach contributes to exacerbated inequality, marginalisation and discrimination of some members of the community. It is imperative that governments use an intersectional approach– an approach that will take into account the historical, social and political context and recognizes the unique experience of the individual/group based on the intersection of all relevant grounds- to ensure that everyone has the necessary support and resources during this period. A one shoe fits all approach will dismantle any progress made in gender democracy and the impact of this will remain post-COVID-19.  

It is important to note that an intersectional response to this pandemic will go a long way in addressing the effects. However, in the long term, all the relevant players will also have to apply an intersectional and multi-dimensional approach to addressing the root causes of the systematic challenges manifested by the pandemic. The global hope to return to the perceived normal status is a myth that needs deconstruction-understanding the relationship between text and meaning. This pandemic has created an opportunity to redefine development and provide for tangible implementation mechanisms for economic, social and cultural rights, globally. 


Caroline Kioko is a feminist human rights lawyer and the programme coordinator Gender and Democracy at Heinrich Boll Foundation- Nairobi

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