coronauganda#5 More one gender perspective

We have entered our fifth week of lockdown, which has been newly extended for 14 days. Uganda has done remarkably well thus far at containing the virus at bay, clocking 114 cases to-date.

In African countries, we have seen that the effects of the lockdown seem to have more detrimental consequences than the proliferation of the virus itself. Indeed, Uganda estimates that its economy will contract resulting from this crisis. The country has recently been awarded over $400 million USD loan from the IMF.

We have already written about the economic impact of the measures. I wanted to highlight some other aspects of economic impacts from a gendered lens here.

Economic Impacts for Men & Women

With a high rate of poverty, men and women alike are suffering economic strain, especially having been cut off from generating income by the closure of small shops, restaurants, malls, driving with motorized vehicles, etc. Women who own petty businesses, in particular, are vulnerable due to their increased limits in accessing credit and other banking services (like small loans) to stay afloat. Women also have less access to resources (like land, vehicles) to use as collateral against overdue loans

Women also tend to be employed in more informal economies, thereby having no employer protections to fall back on in times of need. Women workers in more formal forms of employment, who may receive wages, are typically paid less than men (this is no different in our countries!), meaning less resources to support their families. These women also tend to have jobs with weaker worker protections and benefits, like sick leave. Female migrant workers, like many Ugandan women who work as domestic servants in the Middle East, often depend on their employers for information, supplies, and many do not have formalized contracts – increasing their vulnerability to exploitation and dismissal.

Sex trade workers, of whom the majority are women, potentially face greater risks of generating income due to increased marginalization (i.e., customers fearing contracting the virus); especially in Ugandan society, sex trade workers are heavily scrutinized and this means they lack access to information and support. Additionally, truck drivers (who are, at this point, the exclusive importers of the virus in the country) are known to be common customers of sex workers, meaning the workers are at greater risk of contracting the virus. Sex workers may experience denial of health services due to their increased potential to contracting the virus, as well as pre-existing negative attitudes and stereotypes.

Sex trade workers and truck drivers. Source: infotruck.blogspot.com

In times of economic strife, rates of suicide tend to shoot up. Precisely because of men’s gender socialization to be the breadwinner and provider for the family, we may see increases in men committing suicide, especially as traditional gender norms are widely and strongly held in Uganda. We have seen some reports of men committing suicide recently, but it is hard to tell if this is an aberration from the normal.

School’s Out Forever?

As with many countries across the globe, schools have been closed since mid-March and there is no indication of when they might reopen. The youthful demographic of Uganda means 15 million students are not attending school. There are several negative outcomes of this which can relate to individual/family and societal level economic development.

Firstly, schools in Uganda often offer some type of feeding program. This means that one or more meals may be provided at school for students, as a means of encouraging parents to send children to school, as well as incentivizing students to attend. Additionally, there is a plethora of research indicating the nutritional benefits to students as well as positive outcomes for their academic performance. With closures meaning students back at home with their families, there is an additional burden on families to feed their children.

Research also tells us that in crises resulting in school closures, sexual activity tends to increases among adolescents, meaning higher rates of teenage pregnancies.

This relates to my second point: there is a risk with the cessation of schools that more children dropout of their studies, and the risk is even higher for girls. The lack of engagement in school studies may make it harder for students to resume once schools open up. Girls are already more likely than boys to drop out early and much of this has to do with lack of self-esteem and encouragement to continue studying. Teenage pregnancy and early marriage are two other key reasons girls have lower levels of education than boys.

Importance of keeping girls at school. Source: UNESCO

Thirdly, with children home full-time, the caregiving burden again falls squarely on female caregivers shoulders. This further limits women’s work and economic opportunities, even with the lockdown restrictions. For example, women farmers may have less time to tend to their crops because of these care giving duties.

Women farming in Africa, Source: wikimedia

Economic Time Bomb?

With all of these economic risks and no social safety net afforded to communities across the country, families risk borrowing money from other family members, potentially complicating communal relations should they succumb to similar economic duress. Government support has coalesce around food distribution to the wealthiest districts of Kampala and Wakiso, and I wonder if that has anything to do with presumed donations during the national campaigns for the upcoming January 2021 elections.

I worry most for the most vulnerable who have not received food relief, and it is outrageous to see that this is the country’s majority. I worry, too, for the children who have no educational stimulation, at no fault of their caregivers, with no outlets like connecting to online classrooms. Some families have voiced concern that they should not be paying school fees again since they did not get their money’s worth this semester. What will this mean for the long-term educational attainment and future employment prospects if scores of students cannot and will not resume their studies? These considerations have serious implications for the future of Uganda’s (and indeed other African nations’) social and economic development.