As Africa struggles to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, little is being done to assess its impact on women who are the hardest hit.
In Africa, couples sharing unpaid care work that includes cooking, childcare, cleaning and other unpaid activities related to household maintenance, is an egalitarian ideology sneered upon. It is among the causes of gender disparity globally because women typically shoulder a greater burden of care.
STAY AT HOME
With confirmation of outbreak of coronavirus in Kenya on March 13, the government imposed a stay-at-home order for public and private employees in non-essential services. It also shut down all learning institutions – and now the children are home.
In the African context, a woman’s education or civilisation matters less when it comes to submitting to husband's needs or overseeing management of domestic tasks.
Even before COVID-19, women did more unpaid care work than men.
The pandemic has reprogrammed the employed mother’s life with the stay-at-home rule magnifying her socially defined roles. Even though husband and wife are both home, few men would be comfortable helping with house chores.
Apart from doing their employers’ work, women are now home schooling, care givers, mentors, house cleaners, chefs and entertainers during the supposed working hours.
For single mothers, the burden is heavier as she is the mother and father. Her life runs like a machine powered by grit and internal motivation as she works to provide, school, mentor and discipline the children.
This strain has prompted mothers to restructure their working schedules.
"I have to manage my time differently. I wake up at 5am and do the most of the things I needed to do before the children wake up at 10am. They seek my extra attention when they see me," says Ms Lila Bitengo, an Administration Officer at We Effect Regional Office of Eastern Africa.
Her work is crucial to ensuring smooth coordination of activities and programs in the organisation. Under normal circumstances, she would be preparing to go to work at 5am. For now, it is the time she inclines to her work station laid out with a laptop, Internet connection and a list of deliverables for the day.
The mother of three, a teenager and two toddlers, works till 10am, when the children wake up. She then takes an hour break to take breakfast and play with the children.
At 11am, she is back on her laptop and switches her mind to completing the remaining office tasks. She shuts down her laptop at 1pm and puts it away. By then her nanny would have prepared lunch.
From 2pm onward, her schedule revolves around working from the phone, guiding her son, who is in Form One, in doing his assignments and helps him reach out to his teachers for consultation, if need be.
Her leisure time with the children is between 4pm and 5pm when she walks them around the compound, watch TV with them and entertain them in their preferred manner.
All this while, dinner preparation awaits her - she ensures it is ready at 7.30 pm.
At 8.30 pm, she prepares the babies for bed by singing to them. She spends a few minutes to pamper herself and retires to bed before 10pm.
Ms Bitengo's rescheduled work plan mirrors the weight working mothers have to carry during this period of Covid-19 even as they have to meet their job targets lest they lose their jobs.
With the coronavirus outbreak, many mothers now appreciate the role their domestic helps play in their lives.
“Juggling work and the children has always been a challenge, but with the schools now shut because of coronavirus and the nanny gone, it is a nightmare,” says Mercy Muema a mother of two aged six and eight.
She lives in a gated community in Nairobi, and the estate management has suspended entry for domestic helps from outside to curb the spread of coronavirus. Her nanny is one such, and Ms Muema now has to single-handedly do the household chores in the absence of her help.
Her living room is now a TV room, playground, and office with books and toys scattered everywhere. She says her priority is not the neatness of the room but its cleanliness.
“I am overwhelmed, I am behind schedule with my office work because the children will not let me work! When it’s not their homework, they are fighting and I have to be the pacifier,” laments the business executive in a beverage company.
Ms Muema says she has to ensure the children’s hygiene is taken care of by ensuring they sanitise or wash their hands properly as regularly as is possible. She hardly has her “me time”.
“My husband has been supportive,” she says with a chuckle, “He does online shopping for foodstuff and sometimes washes his car.”
She has to do the laundry, prepare healthy meals that boost the immune system and ensure the children sleep on time.
“Managing the threat of Covid-19, my office work and household chores is demanding. It adds a significant dose of domestic and emotional labour to my life.”
GENDER RESPONSIVE STRATEGY
UN Women has warned of economic impacts of Covid-19 hitting women harder and urges countries to embrace gender responsive strategies in containing the disease.
These include ensuring availability of sex-disaggregated data that includes differing rates of infection, differential economic impacts, differential care burden and incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Also embedding of gender dimensions and gender experts within response plans and budget resources to build gender expertise into response teams.
The Covid-19 pandemic may just be a setback for (women) working mothers who have, over the years, have fought cultural and societal biases to get employed.