Unilag Housing Centre


Engaging COVID-19 in South Africa through a gendered lens

Engaging COVID-19 in South Africa through a gendered lens


Kiara Rampaul is a Masters research student under the SARCHi Chair for Inclusive Cities (NRF-SACN), Department of Town and Regional Planning, School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa



COVID-19 knows no country, borders, race, gender, nor status. It is an indiscriminate foe and the battle against this pandemic will be long and uneasy. The African continent has over 100,000 and in South Africa, 29,240 (as at the end of May 2020). It is predicted that gender gaps will widen during and after the pandemic, with women and girls facing more negative impacts than men and boys. According to the World Bank (2020) the gains in women’s and girls’ accumulation of human capital, economic empowerment and voice and agency, built over the past decades, could be reversed after this pandemic. There is therefore the need to look at the pandemic through a gendered lens.


Women and the COVID-19 Gender Burden

World Health Organisation (2020) reported that women make up 70% of the essential workers in the health and social sector, and are therefore at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic across the globe and disproportionately more exposed to infection. Interestingly, various reports indicate that majority of COVID-19 patients are male. Hence the added burden of male household tasks are added to women’s traditional roles as primary household food producers and caregivers, especially in the absence of infected husbands or fathers.


Throughout the world, people are experiencing some form of lockdown and in times of confinement, case of sexual harassment and other gender-based violence seem to be on the increase. In South Africa, it is reported that one in six women are regularly abused at home by their partners and over 87 000 gender-based violence cases have been reported to the police. According to the World Health Organisation (2020), violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics.


This COVID-19 pandemic has also led to higher unemployment. Economic hardship is a strong predictor of abuse. The lockdown, social distancing, ban of social gatherings coupled with a restriction on alcohol has led to men becoming more sexually sensitive to ease the pressure and depression in this global trying times. The World Health Organization (2020) further states that the disruptions of livelihoods and the ability to earn a living for women especially those who are ‘informal wage’ workers will have a decrease in their access to basic needs and services and therefore will result in an increase of stress on families, thus provoking household conflicts and violence as resources become scarce. The South African national Gender-Based Violence Command Council Centre said they experienced a triple volume of calls during the COVID-19 inspired national lockdown. The South African Police Minister affirmed that in the first week of national lockdown, 2,230 gender-based violence cases were reported, while in Johannesburg, over 1400 gender-based violence and domestic abuse cases were reported in Level 5 lockdown (Seleka, 2020).



Livelihood impacts of COVID-19 on South African Women

The current pandemic has delivered a sharp shock to the global economy and it is predicted that women will feel the economic shock quickest and hardest. This is because women are disproportionately employed in lower-paid and precarious informal employment.  South Africa faces different economic challenges with about 56% of the population living on R1227 or less.  Women are at great risk of experiencing economic abuse (ibid). It is said that 95% of domestic abuse victims experience economic abuse at the household level,  and that the current pandemic and lockdown regulations will provide abusers with more opportunities to control their partner’s economic resources, thereby further diminishing their freedom and choices.


The effect of the pandemic has been reported to result to a decline income from $13.3 to $8.26 among women in South Africa. This is an astronomical drop, considering the daily poverty line of $1.90. It was also reported that South African women were more likely to depend on families for livelihood support in the face of the pandemic and lockdown. This can be attributed to the already pre-COVID existing income disparity between men and women.


Lockdown measures have restricted women from continuing work and earning a living and especially for those women experiencing domestic violence, their increased inability to maintain a level of financial independence leaves them even more vulnerable to abuse. World Health Organisation (2020) asserts that perpetrators of abuse are using the restrictions that have been implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic to exercise power and control over their partners as victims (women) have limited access to services, help, and psychological support from formal and informal networks. Basically, women are finding it difficult to communicate or report assaults during this lockdown. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fear of homelessness.


In the circumstances of lockdown, women shelters and temporary camps are full, and women are becoming even more vulnerable as there are not enough shelters to accommodate victims of abuse. Even more worrisome across the entire country, is the increase in number of rape victims reporting to the temporary camps for shelter. Victims and survivors of such cases are likely to be confronted with many health problems which may be lifelong. Others are at risk of reproductive coercion as perpetrators of abuse seek to control their victims reproductive health.


In responding to this, the South African government has arranged numerous service to be provided to survivors of gender-based violence during the national lockdown. These include enhanced access to shelters, social service, an active texting line through which victims can seek help, and have kept courts open for urgent protection orders. Many organisations such as the Rape Crisis and National Shelter Movement have taken action and have set up helpful locations for women to report violence. The government has also created fifty one Thuthuzela Care Centres (TCCs) (one-stop facilities that have been introduced as a critical part of South Africa’s anti-rape strategy, aiming to reduce secondary victimization and to build a case ready for successful prosecution).


Despite these attempts, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the urgent need for authorities and society to act in a way that addresses and fix the issues faced by women. In essence, women are the ones who are most responsible for holding communities together. With such proximity to the communities, they are well located to emphatically and positively influence the design and implementation of prevention activities and community engagement. So, it is essential to strengthening the leadership and to encourage the participation of women in regional and national level responses.


Without bias empathy for women, resources for initiatives mentioned above should be scaled up by the South African government to assist in providing shelter, counselling and legal aid for more women. This is particularly relevant for victims of sexual and other forms of abuse in the face of high reported cases of abuse. Furthermore, women need to have access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because women play a critical role; as household managers and frontline economic and health workers, thus they face a higher risk of exposure. There is a need for the government to prioritise the safety and recognition of women and men in the health sector.


Therefore it is imperative that a gendered contextualization of the coronavirus crisis and gender considerations in resolving the issues arising are pursued. This also calls for academics to begin to engage gender in the conceptualisation of health and wellbeing during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because women and girls need to be at the centre of the pandemic’s response and recovery process and research.



Seleka, N (2020). Over 1 400 GBV, domestic abuse cases opened in Gauteng during Level 5 lockdown, News 24 [online] Available at: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/ over-1-400-gbv-domestic-abuse-cases-opened-in-gauteng-during-level-5-lockdown-20200521 [Accessed 22 May 2020]


The World Bank (2020). Gender and COVID-19 (Coronavirus), [online] available at: https:// www.worldbank.org/en/topic/gender/brief/gender-and-covid-19-coronavirus [Accessed 21 May 22, 2020]


World Health Organization (2020). COVID-19 and violence against women What the health sector/system can do. [online] Available at: http://d31hzlhk6di2h5.cloudfront.net/20200401/dc/ a2/fe/49/3d0a083ede17469d446dadfe/ COVID19_and_VAW_longer_version_v8_25March__1_.pdf [Accessed 21 May 22, 2020]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.