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From hunger to abuse: Seven women tell us how COVID has devastated their lives

Experts fear the COVID-19 pandemic may set gender equality back decades. Here, seven women explain the struggles it has brought and their hopes for the future

More men than women may have contracted COVID-19 around the world, but experts have warned that the pandemic may set gender equality back by decades.

Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a paper this past week that policymakers risked prolonging the crisis and slowing economic recovery if they ignored the gendered impacts of coronavirus. She added that overhauling systems could allow governments to build “more prosperous, more prepared and more equal” countries.

Many women have struggled financially, emotionally and physically throughout the pandemic. We talked to seven women about the impact on them and their communities and how they see the future.

Mabinty Mambu, 14, student, Sierra Leone

I was scared when the schools closed at the end of March. I thought they might be closing forever and I worried about what would happen to us girls. I was only nine when Ebola forced the schools to close for eight months.

This time, it is different. Some of the girls I know have become pregnant since lockdown and I feel sorry for them, because I know they will never be able to achieve what they wanted — to finish their education. They are ashamed of what has happened to them.

I have five brothers and sisters. My father is a schoolteacher, but my mum never learned to read or write. They are very supportive of all of us continuing our education, especially us girls. For the first month after the schools closed, I was helping my family by going out alone to the markets to sell sugar. I hated going to the market, because I was always so tired and hungry at the end of the day. Eventually, my school, EducAid, asked me to participate in recording some radio lessons that they are doing for national broadcast, so students can keep learning while the schools are shut. I came to live at the school in Port Loko.

I go on the local radio to talk about early pregnancy and keeping communities safe. We get lots of call-ins and we tell the girls why they must abstain from sex in order to continue their education. I also talk to my own sisters, who are 11 and 13, about why this is so important.

In two years’ time, I would like to be sitting my university entrance exams to study chemistry. But I am still scared about my future. We haven’t had any updates from the government about schools reopening.

I am glad that I have pride in myself and who I am, and that I am not like other girls, who want to get their self-esteem from boys’ attention. I hope one day to be a great woman in society. I would like to help people. Maybe I could be a doctor.

Lola Ayanda, DJ, Nigeria

My activism started during my radio days, when I was a host on Solid 92.5. I heard so many stories of women being abused and denied things, simply because they were female. In Nigeria, raped or abused women are stigmatised. If you are unmarried, no one wants to marry you or have children with you. So women stay silent: they don’t press charges or share their story and risk being publicly shamed. That just helps normalise the abuse. The women’s movement here is trying to change that mentality, that you are meant to shield your husband or partner no matter what, even if it means being killed.

Since the pandemic started, there has been a worrying increase in gender-based violence across Nigeria. I work with ActionAid Nigeria, which recorded 299 cases across five states since lockdown began in March.

In Lagos, in just one month, the Ireti Resource Centre recorded a 700% increase in cases from 2019, while another partner organisation has seen caseloads triple during the lockdown. The team is dealing with a rape case almost every day — with no government funding.

The atmosphere is intense and we need change urgently. We have rallied in the street to demand that change and Nigeria’s state governors have declared a state of emergency on femicide and rape.

I want to see women and girls in Nigeria live free of violence. We are calling for a ban on bail and out-of-court settlements for these cases; more funding for local women’s organisations; and for services such as women’s shelters to be classified as essential by the government during emergencies such as COVID.

Rose Achayo Obol, 57, aspiring MP, Uganda

Lockdown has made things very difficult for women living with disabilities like me. Most of us don’t have any formal employment, so we engage in petty business to make ends meet. I get so many calls every day from women saying they don’t have enough money to buy soap or food or hand sanitiser. Any capital we had has evaporated, because we have had to survive during lockdown.

Most government announcements regarding preventive measures for COVID have come through online and social media. But the majority of women with disabilities in the countryside don’t have smartphones or wifi or even electricity, so they couldn’t get any first-hand information and were relying on their neighbours instead, who couldn’t give them reliable information. When lockdown finally came, things got worse, because many women with disabilities have other illnesses, such as HIV. They were meant to be getting their drugs from hospital, but they couldn’t get to hospital any more because public transportation had shut down.

When I was 27, I was working as a cashier in a remote village when I was shot in the leg. My bone was shattered and I had to be taken to Kampala for treatment. I lost my job, my fiance began beating me, I called off the marriage and people’s attitudes towards me suddenly changed. They saw me as single, childless and a cripple; they called me names and laughed at me.

I decided to study social work and found a job at an organisation for people with disabilities. After nearly 30 years campaigning, I now feel I need to go to the legislative level where I can work to change what I have been seeing on the ground, especially when it comes to women and girls with disabilities.

We need better access to justice and we need to end the sexual and physical abuse of people with disabilities. We also need to collate real data on just how many people in Uganda are living with disabilities. The figure we throw around is 16% of the population, but we don’t know how many are women or children or have physical disabilities or visual or hearing impairment. Knowing these figures could help the government aggregate its resources.

Uganda’s electoral laws do not favour a person like me. At least five seats in parliament must be reserved for people with disabilities, one of whom must be a woman. This term, there are more than five women with disabilities running in the race. Because of COVID-19, the campaign has to be digital — and most people living in the villages don’t have electricity. Reaching voters is going to be a challenge, but it is women like me who need to inspire change.

Jemimah Makau, 32, midwife, Kenya

COVID has really changed the way that women have their deliveries. Before, I would see 30 patients a day at the clinic where I work in Makueni; now I see as few as 10, which means that women are delivering babies at home. The mothers come into the clinic with complications after birth instead. The problem is that there is very little public transportation and there is still a curfew from 9pm until 4am, so if a mother has a complication during the night she has to wait.

There was one woman recently who had previously given birth by caesarean section. She went into labour at home, but ran into complications and came very late to the clinic. They went into theatre at the hospital and luckily the baby and mother survived.

Another case was a 15-year-old girl who had difficulty feeding her baby after she returned home. She returned to the clinic with her baby, who, by this point, had already developed hypoglycaemia and malnutrition and, unfortunately, did not survive. The baby was only two weeks old.

Now that lockdown is being lifted, I expect to see more COVID cases and I fear what might happen. We have been lucky that there have been no cases at the clinic, but I worry about mothers who might present no symptoms, but still pass it on to the newborns.

Social distancing means that I can’t give the attention I would like to my patients. And, because we can’t do any group health classes, we have to do one-on-one engagement, which means we have very little time to properly speak with mothers. Once COVID is over, I am hoping for 100% patient attendance, so that women can come into the clinics and deliver their babies in the safest manner possible.

Nana Kirmelashvili, 58, tea plantation owner, Georgia

I used to work in the visual arts and for many years I have run an art gallery in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. But, five years ago, a friend of my husband — who comes from Nagomari, a village in Guria, Georgia’s old tea-growing region — would not stop talking about the plantations and the tea they could produce. I went to visit, expecting to see a plantation, and found a jungle instead. Something clicked in my mind and I decided to start a tea cooperative right then and there.

It has been very hard work. Georgia used to be one of the biggest tea producers in the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everything was destroyed. We had to start from scratch. The plantation needed total rehabilitation after 30 years of inactivity; this year was the first that we could expect a full harvest. We were very worried because of COVID: would a full harvest be possible?

Luckily, we were able to get together all 70 employees, 90% of whom are women, and get the harvest completed. Some of the women are in their 80s and used to pick tea during the Soviet era. For them to now be part of a cooperative, with their own earnings and financial independence, especially during lockdown, made them very happy.

Now that lockdown has been lifted, it is easier for us to get our tea to Tbilisi, 190 miles away. But many of the hotels, restaurants and cafes are still closed. I am planning on exporting to the US in the near future and I have my eye on a bigger factory.

Nenina ‘Ka Nitz’ Gonzaga, 79, trade union leader, Philippines

The pandemic has forced everyone, including us senior citizens, to stay at home. It has been quite boring, to be honest. Even if I would like to work, there is no work to do, so it makes me feel helpless.

I am a widow and live with my two children and three grandchildren. We are lucky to have a small plot of land with a house in Manila. I live on the third floor. I must go up and down the stairs 15 times a day, so it is good exercise. I have many, many plants and I talk to them. I also read my books. But I miss being out and about.

I am the vice-president for women with the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a national trade union. Before lockdown, I went to all the rallies. Because of my age, I wouldn’t ride on the trucks, but I would always be present. Lockdown has forced us to stay home, but we need to be on the streets. The two unions here in the Philippines were being repressed before the pandemic hit, not just by management, but by the government. Now that the factories are closed, there is no work, no salaries and no food. Yet the price of goods and services is high.

The government said it would provide me with some social support to help, but I have received only 1 500 pesos (£24), as well as a birthday cake, since March. I worked my whole life. I expect more from my government. Over the past five months, I wouldn’t have been able to survive without the help of the KMU, which has provided rice, canned goods and medicine, not only to me, but many others.

The future looks bleak. I expect the factories will capitalise on this pandemic and disband the unions and for the government to side, as usual, with the employers. Our president, Rodrigo Duterte, just signed the anti-terrorism bill in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because he doesn’t want us activists — whom he deems terrorists — to fight back. But we must. Once we are on the streets again, I would like to be there fighting.

Samantha Murozoki, 35, lawyer and businesswoman, Zimbabwe

Feeding thousands of families in my hometown, Chitungwiza, on the outskirts of Harare, has become my life since the start of the lockdown in Zimbabwe. Seeing smiles on the faces of women and girls is fulfilling.

My little kitchen has become a home to at least 3 000 people daily, but their problems run deeper. The ladies here are struggling to make ends meet; their little businesses have suffered as a result of COVID-19.

Before lockdown, my life was stable; I was trying out a business venture. Unfortunately, I had to abandon the project when lockdown began. This has affected my finances. I will have to start over post-lockdown; all my savings are gone. I am certain other women have been affected, too, as their businesses are no longer profitable. I fear for the ladies who pass by my kitchen every day. Their lives have been ruined by COVID-19. These mothers work hard for their families, but there is barely anything, as incomes have depleted.

I am talking about women and girls who survive on street vending for a living. Now that vending has been banned, they have nothing at home. I often have sleepless nights wondering where their next meal at the kitchen will come from and certainly I will work on helping them rebuild their lives post-COVID. There is no way you can sleep when you cannot feed your family.

I envision a future where a woman is self-sufficient. I have been talking with some of the women about ideas to help start income generating projects. We will definitely require financial support for this. Hopefully it comes our way.

This feature was originally published by The Guardian’s global development project.