'Must I pay for bread, water or rent?': Stark choices for women in lockdown

Women have been exposed to gender-based violence as well as numerous other challenges during the national lockdown.
Women have been exposed to gender-based violence as well as numerous other challenges during the national lockdown.
Image: 123RF/Artit Oubkaew

Women have been exposed to violence, emotional distress and having to juggle several responsibilities at once to care for their families under the national lockdown.

“It seems that a woman's work is never done” said session chair Alex Hotz in her opening statement during a webinar on Thursday on SA’s Covid-19 lockdown and how it has increased the violence, insecurity and exploitation faced by the working class.

The International Labour Research and Information Group SA (Ilrigsa) hosted the virtual discussion under the topic “Women under lockdown”. 

Police minister Bheki Cele said on April 2 that police received more than 87,000 gender-based violence complaints in the first week of the national lockdown alone.

Against this backdrop of domestic violence and abuse, the forum discussed how women were bearing the brunt of the lockdown.

“A woman’s work is really never done” said panellist Deniel de Wet from the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agriculture & Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU).

“As a farm workers' union, we have a lot of battles to fight. If we talk about Covid-19 at the moment, we are struggling. Our women are sitting at home. There is no work at the moment.”

CSAAWU has been involved in negotiations about the retrenchment of farm workers in the Western Cape amid the lockdown.

One of their most urgent concerns is a call for women to become permanent employees. “We want a contract for women — not seasonal workers,” said De Wet.

“Women are primary caregivers who carry the brunt of this pandemic,” said Kashiefa Achmat from the Housing Assembly.

For her, the biggest challenge of the lockdown has been the evictions that the Housing Assembly has been dealing with.

“Housing is a problem, with people being evicted from their places. People are struggling to pay rent. Us as women, we are the ones who are supposed to find a way to get the money to pay,” she said, adding that women are the main breadwinners in many communities.

Achmat said some woman had been forced to ask themselves the difficult question: “What's more important — must I buy bread, must I pay for water or must I pay for rent?”

With schools reopening under level 3, mothers are also afraid that their children will be exposed to the virus due to a lack of protective gear, she added.

“Mothers in our communities are teachers in these schools. We don't know if our children will come back safe.”

Patricia Makhubu from the Gauteng Community Health Care Forum said the government had failed front-line workers serving communities during the pandemic.

“The government has failed us as community health workers. We don't have PPEs to visit households. We've been told to work and screen at schools now — with no resources,” she said.

We don't do debriefings for psychological support. We go to households but no one comes to us and asks how we are doing.
Patricia Makhubu

Makhubu said the lockdown had a bigger affect on “diehard women” who woke up every morning to ensure there was food on the table, such as street vendors and hairstylists.

“It is really straining for women, especially in the townships. You have to look after the household and children. Working from home is hard because there are chores and the children — you end up not doing your job,” she said.

Makhubu said community health care workers were exposed to emotional and mental strain.

“We don't do debriefings for psychological support. We go to households but no-one comes to us and asks how we are doing. When we visit homes, people ask us for food, they tell us they are hungry. We see so many challenges,” she said.

One of the issues flagged during the webinar was that while many people have been affected by Covid-19 and the lockdown, it has not been the same for everyone.

“The affect of the virus and the lockdown is gendered, racialised and it is classed,” said Hotz.

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