As South Africa commemorates Womxn’s Month this August, I cannot help, but reflect on what this month means to me during these times. I am worried about the state of womanhood in this current political dispensation.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. The effects of this shock are likely to outlast the actual epidemic.
In South Africa, across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of Covid-19 are exacerbated for womxn simply by virtue of their sex:
1) Compounded economic impacts are felt especially by womxn and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty.
2) Purely as a physical illness, early stats reported that the coronavirus appears to affect womxn less, however, the health of black womxn is adversely impacted through the reallocation of resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services.
3) Unpaid care work has increased, with children out-of-school, heightened care needs of older persons and overwhelmed health services. This blatant injustice is intensified by school closures and increased illness, which leads to a growing burden for carers.
4) Black Womxn are continuously disfavoured by the recruitment process for being child-bearers and for running single-parent households. More than anything, this pandemic has resulted in a few uncertainties that have created a whole lot of anxiety and animosity amongst citizens, particularly black womxn. As womxn take on greater care demands at home, their livelihoods are disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs.
Such impacts risk reversing the fragile gains by Feminism made in ensuring that womxn meaningful participate and are represented economically in the labour force, resulting in womxn’s inability to support themselves and their families. Capitalism – a system that puts profits before people’s needs — is the root cause of the current exacerbated crises, which black womxn have been suffering from for decades.
Capitalism during the pandemic is heightened to make black womxn feel inadequate and chastised for being mothers & child bearers. As there is an expected amount of pressure for black womxn to perform exceedingly, single mothers face even harder decisions: while schools are closed, how do they juggle earning and caring?
Capitalism denies black womxn the opportunity to prioritise their mental wellbeing and increases focus on ‘production’- which is ironic considering the seriousness of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the ugly bases of capitalism like racism, sexism, violence and exploitation will long exist after the Coronavirus crisis and black womxn will be beneficiaries of an exploitative, violent and vulnerable strata of society.
Black Womxn are not oblivious to the violent nature of the pandemic on their black bodies. In effect, black womxn experience inequality, patriarchy and Capitalism every day of their lives. That’s why male interference and prescribing what feminism should be is a dangerous reaction. On 18 May, a coalition of activist organisations sent a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa warning that the Covid-19 pandemic and South Africa’s national lockdown will further erode the dignity, security and human rights of many queer persons and sex workers.
Contrary to popular opinion, this pandemic has highlighted the need for a feministic approach in addressing the pandemic. Neoliberalism, as an economic ideology of capitalism, has exhausted our public services, turned our education and healthcare into profit-driven businesses, accumulated profits at the expense of undervalued and underpaid workers, favoured profitability of a militarised world over human security and well-being, and aggravated inequalities amongst the vulnerable.
Although proven to work, self-isolation has escalated violence against womxn and children. Many womxn & children are being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers while services to support survivors are being disrupted or rather inaccessible. This experience of gender-based violence often means womxn feel physically and psychosocially trapped. Furthermore, differences in power between
men and womxn mean that womxn do not have any autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives & possibly means an increase in HIV/AIDS infections amongst young black Womxn & Girls in SA.
Sexual and reproductive health services and commodities are often overlooked in times of crisis, yet womxn continue to require family planning, menstrual health supplies, maternal and mental health care. We’ve seen Government use the “things that aren’t priorities, get cancelled” approach during the lockdown, which has been counterproductive.
With nothing in the way of government support, sex workers, among the first to lose their income because of the virus, are forced to rely on the generosity of others to eat. Sex workers have deliberately been left out from the general conversations about support for workers throughout the pandemic and lockdown conversation. Sex workers among other vulnerable workers remain the most marginalised of all workers, whose work is still criminalised in South Africa.
The loss of income due to the coronavirus outbreak has meant the loss of shelter, inability to access food, healthcare, medications
and other necessities for sex workers and their dependents. The pandemic should be womxn led, and the Government should utilise a feminist approach.
There is no doubt that the welfare of black womxn should be located at the centre of national and global responses to public health emergencies. Additionally, the pandemic highlights the urgency of questioning, challenging and resisting mainstream racial capitalism.
Racial capitalism must be dismantled, as it thrives in a patriarchal, sexist and unequal society and has co-opted and strengthened
unhealthy male supremacist cultures and practices.
Everything we do during and after the Covid-19 the crisis must aim to build meaningful equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies. This is perhaps the clearest lesson emerging from the pandemic.
There is a system – ensure it works! In South Africa, the face of poverty remains BLACK. Why should all these atrocities have the face of a BLACK womxn? It is no coincidence that black womxn are always at the bottom of the barrel – it is a designed system.
I find it extremely hard showing up in a country that hates & views black womxn as sub-humans. More MUST be done to support & protect black womxn from black men, violence, inequality, poverty & unemployment. WE are not yet Uhuru until black womxn are liberated economically.
Aphiwe Ziyanda Ntlemeza has a masters graduate in sociology, feminist, writer, and researcher.