From providing meals to hygiene promotion and mask-making, grassroots groups working on climate, conflict and other issues are crafting local responses to the pandemic
Whether you’re an urban resident living in South Africa’s Cape Town or a Maasai tribesperson in rural Kenya, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how women are negatively affected by both the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. But it has also revealed how women are leading many frontline activities – mobilising grassroots relief efforts, as well as carrying out their existing work – both paid and unpaid.
While many of the challenges faced by women and other marginalised groups are not new, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated food insecurity, gender-based violence and precarious livelihood opportunities, imposed new intersecting challenges and exposed prevailing fault lines in the system, such as those associated with pervasive inequality.
During this unprecedented time, when governments have been slow to respond and institutional capacities linked to healthcare and relief efforts are constrained, grassroot organisations have played – and continue to play – a key role in building community resilience by extending support using networks and existing local resources.
For example, indigenous women in Maasai and Mt Elgon communities in Kenya are using different strategies to respond to the crisis, such as training women to make liquid hand soap and using local tailors to sew masks as well as creating awareness within their communities. When COVID-19 hit, the Maasai communities were still recovering from devastating floods, and Mt Elgon communities were coping with the aftermath of conflicts and associated atrocities.
Yet local women such Diana Nooormishuki Chesengei and Evelin Namalwa, both working as community climate change ambassadors and health volunteers with the Women’s Climate Centers International (WCCI), Kenya, have been instrumental in setting up community care centres for people with co-morbidities (e.g. HIV and diabetes) and fighting traditional cultural beliefs to build community awareness regarding the novel coronavirus by conducting household visits.
Further south, another place where the faultlines have been laid bare is in the neighbourhood of Vrygrond in Cape Town, South Africa. Vrygrond is one of the oldest settlements in the Western Cape, with a history of constant change linked to social engineering, forced relocation and unjust policies and legislation. This history has made Vrygrond a hub of intergenerational rural-urban migration, homelessness, informality, gangsterism, poverty, violence – especially gender-based – and intra-African migration.
However, despite this backdrop, seeds of change are sprouting. A local activist with Vrygrond United 4 Change, Nolubabalo Bulana, recounts that quick mobilisation and collective action was required to help people survive and maintain the urban food supply as people lost incomes and access to food support during the lockdown. This began with a rapid vulnerability mapping, run in collaboration with a local non-profit, Amava Oluntu.
Within days, and with support from the newly formed Muizenberg Community Action Network (CAN) which is part of a broader Cape Town Together movement, 16 new community kitchens were set up each serving meals six days a week to 250-300 people per day. These kitchens are run mostly by women, often from rooms in their homes, in addition to their regular work and care-loads.
Similarly, in Kenya, deepened economic impacts mean women and girls are earning less and saving little. With children out of school, women face more family responsibilities and compromised reproductive health services as resources are reallocated to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. With restricted movement and social isolation, women are also suffering higher than average levels of gender-based violence.
REIMAGINING THE FUTURE
Shifts must happen in the way resilience-building activities are implemented – the notion of ‘bouncing back’ is not an option when the past model is broken. We need to reimagine completely different futures, built through grassroots coalitions that can address local needs and build decentralised leadership. This can only be done through recognising the tremendous and often invisible work of women and addressing how power asymmetries play out in decision-making processes.
A feminist approach to leadership for ‘building back better’ understands that we are only as safe – or empowered – as the most vulnerable among us. Without fundamental changes in the way decisions are made, mindful of how power is linked to resource allocation and distribution, COVID-19 and future crises will further exacerbate gender inequities and make it difficult for women, girls and other marginalised communities to survive, let alone thrive.
Nadia Sitas is a Senior researcher at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is also a member of the Muizenberg Community Action Network (CAN). Nadia has experience in leading and working in large transdisciplinary teams and is committed to research that can have transformative impact.
Rose Wamalwa is the African Coordinator at the Women Climate Centre International (WCCI) and the founder of Women in Water and Natural Resources Conservation (WWANC), a non-profit organization in Western Kenya.