Zimbabwe has suffered too many humanitarian crises to cover in-depth in this article: from severe droughts in 2019 leading to widespread food insecurity; the devastation after Cyclone Idai; 22,000 deaths due to HIV and AIDS-related illnesses in 2018 alone; to recent malaria and typhoid outbreaks. Thus, the country was already in a vulnerable state before COVID-19 even reached its borders in March 2020. As of September 24th, 7,725 cases have been confirmed and, while numbers remain far lower than in its neighbouring country South Africa, the rate of infection has started to increase rapidly in recent weeks.
The Government has introduced strict measures to control the spread of COVID-19. On March 19th 2020, His Excellency President Emmerson Mnangagwa (President of Zimbabwe and leader of ZANU-PF since November 2017 after Robert Mugabe was deposed) announced the COVID-19 National Preparedness and Response Plan which imposed the necessary nationwide lockdown as a prudent public health prevention measure. The lockdown had four phases, and many restrictions were lifted when Level 2 was announced in May. However, in July, authorities began tightening the lockdown following a surge in COVID-19 cases. For example, on July 21st, the Government introduced a curfew from 6pm to 6am. The re-introduction of these measures has led to an increased security presence on the ground. This has coincided with increased incidents of protests regarding the economic shocks that resulted from COVID-19 (described in more detail below). A large protest was planned for July 31st but did not materialise. Several high-profile figures, such as Hopewell Chin’ono and award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga, have been arrested for attending or planning protests, which is against the current lockdown laws.
In addition, lockdown measures will gravely affect people’s food security. My family grew up in Zimbabwe: my father in Redcliff and my mother in Bulawayo. I have been back a handful of times, and assist with work for a small charity based in Bulawayo, Vulindlela Guardians, which has paid school fees for HIV-related orphans in the city since 2005. In recent months, our partners on the ground have appealed to us in a new way – to pay for children’s food. Without children going to school or able to leave their homes, many of them are going hungry. We found ourselves having to request special permission from the police to deliver food. Our colleague Shelley at e’Pap has had to reschedule deliveries around protests, and we are fundraising to provide the bare minimum in monthly supplies of soap and vegetables. A disheartening crisis of hunger has emerged parallel to the crisis of COVID-19, in Zimbabwe and most of the African continent and beyond. Zimbabwe is now among the four most food-insecure countries in the world alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. As necessary lockdown measures to protect public safety continue, the outlook for the 184 children that Vulindlela Guardians helps is becoming more and more concerning. With 4.3 million Zimbabweans already living in severe food insecurity and 95,000 children under the age of 5 suffering from acute malnutrition, the outlook for the wider population is even more distressing.
Food insecurity, and the increasingly limited access to basic goods, is further exacerbated by the current economic situation and its impact on people’s livelihoods. Zimbabwe is facing its worst economic crisis in over a decade, with inflation rates reaching almost 800% on the recently reintroduced Zimbabwe dollar and there is now a scarcity of goods. In recent months there have also been electricity and fuel shortages, though this has now eased. The arrival of COVID-19 and subsequent market upset will most acutely affect those who cannot weather these economic shocks. For example, with the shutdown of many areas of the informal economy, a large number of Zimbabweans will lose their source of income. Women will be hugely impacted: worldwide, women make up a disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal economy and have been left without any social protection for loss of income. In Zimbabwe, the number of women employed in the informal economy has hugely increased over the past 3 decades, according to the International Labour Organization, and women are over-represented in activities such as street vending and wholesale and retail trade. On top of causing women to struggle for income and resources, lockdown will have also impacted many women’s source of autonomy, both by limiting their financial independence from their families and restricting their freedom to travel to work and socialise with other women outside their homes. For adolescent girls looking to earn an income in order to advance their development capacity, opportunities are becoming increasingly scarce. Girls and young women are more likely to be in insecure jobs in the informal sector globally, and without adequate social protection, they will be less able to recover from these disruptions. This will have an immense impact on the mental health of millions of women and girls.
But, in the face of such crisis, Zimbabweans are increasingly taking collective action to assist and support others, and a culture of kindness is emerging. For example, vendors and small farmers are reportedly providing free food to those most in need, and people are giving what they can within communities, to friends and strangers alike, illustrating a growing sense of cohesion and humanity. Samantha Murozi began a feeding programme for children in Chitungwiza in March, on the outskirts of Harare, selling her own possessions to meet the demand, and is now providing for more than 2,000 families in her community. In Bulawayo, smallholder farmers are stepping up production rates to provide for their communities.
Access to other forms of healthcare (beyond COVID-19) has been limited over this period. With the government having to focus entirely on managing the COVID-19 response, nationwide, clinics and hospitals are only responding to COVID-19 cases or accepting clients that have life-threatening conditions. Socially, this forces the burden of care for terminal or chronic illnesses onto women or girls in Zimbabwe, adding stress and financial and emotional burden in an already difficult context where they are unable to work and have limited access to resources and assets. This burden of care involves responding to government campaigns for citizens to wash their hands (the main message from the government), meaning that there has been an increase in the need for clean water within homes. In rural communities, households rely on communal boreholes to collect water, and it is reported that women in Zimbabwe were visiting the bores on average 3 times a day. As Rebecca Kapaira, mother of 5, told Claire Nevill of the UN World Food Programme, “women and girls are at the receiving end of the coronavirus…because it’s us women who do the household chores all the time…we cannot do social distancing. We are the most at risk”. These responsibilities will also limit women being able to return to work, as they are forced to remain at home to perform household tasks.
The impact of COVID-19 has been negative on women’s access to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and family planning. In an interview, Population Services International (PSI) Zimbabwe, a global health NGO working on SRH-related treatment, reported that all of their elective procedures had stopped and all walk-in clinics had closed. Only one-third of the staff were coming to work in clinics, so PSI had to prioritise treatment for chronic care (e.g. long-term HIV treatment), but stopped cervical cancer screening completely for about 6 weeks. There is also reportedly a strain on the delivery of services, as travel to drop-off sites such as pharmacies is more tightly controlled, creating delays in supply chains.
Although COVID-19 poses novel challenges to women in terms of accessing healthcare and food, many pre-existing issues have rather been exacerbated by the lockdown and current economic crisis. Globally, young girls are often the most affected by crises such as these, and the current impact of the pandemic in Zimbabwe is no exception. Though Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court declared child marriage unconstitutional and set the minimum marriage age at 18 years old in 2013, a Human Rights Watch report states that “the government has not put structures in place to implement the court’s decision and ensure that girls under 18 are not forced into marriage”. In an interview with Beatrice Savadye, Director of ROOTS (the charity which successfully campaigned for the constitutional change to outlaw child marriage), it became clear that cases of child marriages are spiking again. Though there has not been official research conducted into this spike yet, reports of new cases of child marriage to ROOTS have increased. Savadye reported that “poverty is the major driver” for this spike as girls are conditioned into seeking marriage at a young age to escape poverty and parents sell their young daughters into marriage before, they lose their virginity when greater ‘value’ is attributed to them. Savadye problematised this situation further by highlighting the lack of government structures and safety nets to protect young girls from these violations of their human rights.
Prior to COVID-19, Zimbabwe had the highest teen pregnancy rate in sub-Saharan Africa. With girls stuck inside the home, no longer travelling to school, with little or no access to online learning, and with less access to contraception, there has been a further spike. The most likely consequence will be a high increase in drop-out rates of young girls from school, though research into this will be needed once schools re-open. School closure in Zimbabwe since March has hindered girls’ safety even further. Teachers can provide a safety net against abusers, as they are able to identify the signs of abuse and even intervene before abuses take place. This has been removed from under these girls, who are now left to fend for themselves in the home. These issues, however, are not granted to disappear once schools re-open, as the economic situation and lack of sources of income might mean that many families will be unable to send their children back to school.
Young girls and women have struggled with menstrual hygiene in Zimbabwe for a long time, with period poverty affecting many. The arrival of COVID-19 led to prices skyrocketing, with a pack of sanitary pads now priced between $100 and $200. Thus, women have been driven to using rags, newspapers or leaves as replacements. Furthermore, many girls in rural Zimbabwe were dependent on schools for a supply of pads. Culturally, a lot of stigma surrounds a woman’s period, and women suffer in silence over their lack of amenities. In a blog post written by Sfe Sebata, founder of Rise N’ Shine Trust, the true effect of period poverty on the dignity and everyday lives of Zimbabwean women is made painfully clear. Sebata writes that the “patriarchal nature” of African societies has taught girls and women “to hide this natural phenomenon from a very early age”, who now resort to “old clothes…paper…tissue and others who are lucky can use cotton wool”. The SRHR Thematic Lead for Plan International in Zimbabwe reported that “males generally do not support or see sanitary wear as an essential service and cultural taboos associated with menstruation have increased. Girls are not allowed to cook when menstruating according to the culture.” With such widespread cultural barriers to speaking about and addressing period poverty, tied with COVID-19 movement restrictions and the economic crisis, how will women be able to overcome this monthly challenge in the near future?
As has been the case globally, there has also been a spike in rates of gender-based violence (GBV) in Zimbabwe, which has affected both men and women. According to the team at PSI Zimbabwe, GBV has “always been around”, and women deal with it on a “day to day basis”, but cases are now increasing. The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe reports that cases have risen from 15 per day to 49 per day, and the Musasa Project, a local refuge NGO, revealed at the end of June that over 2,500 cases of sexual violence were reported since the beginning of lockdown. PSI Zimbabwe reported that men are also suffering increased Intimate Partner Violence due to lockdown stressors, as wives berate their husbands for not going out and making money “like other men”. Alongside the economic strains placed on households and the frustrations that build up in lockdown, Savadye of ROOTS also stated that GBV rates have increased because the refocusing of Government resources into the COVID-19 response has restricted the police force’s ability to respond to reports, for example of domestic violence, or to take on new cases that are unrelated to controlling the spread of the virus. Police allegedly turn away women reporting instances of GBV, requiring them to go back home to the perpetrator. In addition, women’s inability to access the judicial system due to movement restrictions and their inability to provide proof of necessary travel when going to report violence further compounds these issues. The threat of arrest used to act as an inhibitor against people committing acts of GBV, however, Savadye states that “now perpetrators know that even if they beat their wife or child they will not be arrested”, and the belief that people can “get away with it” has become more pervasive. Thus, as cases rise and the Government remains focused on its COVID-19 response, there will be major barriers to protecting women and girls from GBV.
NGOs and CSOs have, for a long time, been working to address the gaps in protective measures for women and girls that have resulted from the Government’s limited available resources. Zimbabwe is lucky to have an immense network of small organisations that do incredible work; however, COVID-19 has dramatically decreased the resources available to them to carry out their work. Unfortunately, it is predominantly those who most rely on NGO assistance who are the worst affected by COVID-19. Rouzeh Eghtessadi, Executive Director of SAfAIDS (an NGO operating in the SADC region advocating for ethical responses to SRHR, HIV, advancing gender justice and applying policy analysis and research), shared with me the new challenges faced by NGOs since the emergence of COVID-19 lockdowns across the region. Critical policy dialogues and meetings, linked to SRH campaigning, and lobbying with policy-makers across SADC Ministries, had to be halted in line with lockdown physical distancing requirements. As a result, NGOs have had to reframe their work to focus on digital programmes and virtual spaces. From a human resources perspective, there have been difficulties addressing each employee’s unique work-from-home requirements in 8 different countries with 8 different lockdown laws (SAfAIDS has staff stationed in eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe). However, the organisation has shown immense innovation to tackle this and re-engineered effective operational modalities which enable continuity of its service to communities and populations in need. Eghtessadi said that ensuring sustained funding within the COVID-19 era has also posed a new challenge for many NGOs, and more so for smaller community-based organisations (CBOs). If not mitigated, this would, of course, trickle down to affect the lives of all those who relied upon NGOs, including SAfAIDS’ work to ensure their safety, dignity and health and well-being, within the human and social development context. In a country where the State often cannot provide basic essential healthcare provisions, such as safe abortions, and NGOs or aid agencies have to step in, these restrictions on their resources will impact the lives of many Zimbabwean women and girls.
ROOTS, too, have faced strains due to COVID-19, however, they have mostly been able to continue to operate as they work directly with communities. As other NGOs struggle and the government’s spending on areas outside of pandemic response is limited, from both a funding and human resources perspective, ROOTS has had to take on more work than they are able to. However, Savadye and her team have continued to help women throughout the crisis in a number of creative ways. They have utilised mobile clinics to provide SRH and support to GBV survivors. They also provide transport for those who can no longer independently travel to refuge centres. Like SAfAIDS, ROOTS has also made more use of digital spaces to provide support for survivors, by creating WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms to close access and communication gaps, creating toll-free support web pages, so young people can access these without data restrictions, as well as directly calling those in need to offer psychosocial support. ROOTS had been responding to period poverty for the past three years with the campaign Sassy Pads, where they make and distribute pads. They are including these pads in emergency packs being sent to communities. However, ROOTS is only able to produce about 1,500 pads a month, which is still not meeting the high demand.
But, as Savadye states, there is only so much that ROOTS, and organisations like it, can do. They are largely focused on emergency relief, and with little support available from the government as the latter focuses on controlling the virus, it is difficult to provide enough aid to women and girls. With international travel and assistance reduced, the Zimbabwean economy in crisis and lockdown measures persisting, the continued impact of COVID-19 on the lives of the poorest Zimbabweans in many ways has a heart-breaking outlook. That being said, COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on many of the issues present within society, both in Zimbabwe and worldwide, and thus, presents an opportunity for innovation, increased collaboration between communities, and novel policy shifts. As Rouzeh Eghtessadi states, the extraordinary circumstance presented by COVID-19 can be leveraged as a springboard for communities, development partners, and Governments to reframe a “new norm” which will safeguard populations within just, equal and safe spaces, and enable nations to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) that they all aspire to attain.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect WILPF UK’s or those of the organisations mentioned.
With many thanks to Rouzeh Eghtessadi for her generosity and assistance. Also, thanks to Beatrice Savadya of ROOTS, and PSI Zimbabwe for their time.