Women and men, girls and boys, urban and rural populations in West Africa are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediate impacts at the time of this research center around reduced income and access to basic needs due to government lockdowns, changing gender roles in households, and increased gender-based violence. The COVID-19 pandemic in West Africa is currently exacerbating socio-economic issues, with women bearing the largest burden of caring for their families while also seeking to lead communities in prevention and adaptation.
As of mid-April 2020, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa is relatively low. That said, there has only been limited testing in Africa, leading many experts to be concerned that Africa could still experience outbreaks on, or beyond, the scale experienced in other regions. Governments are imposing restrictions on movement to reduce the risk of potential outbreaks, and this is directly impacting the ability of humanitarian actors to provide necessary assistance. At the same time, some governments, notably the governments of Mali and Niger, are also expanding their safety nets to help people respond to COVID-19 and its impacts.
CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis draws from CARE’s deep experience in the region, and from interviews with 266 people across 12 countries. It points to serious ongoing economic, health, and financial impacts that will be especially severe for women. It also paints a mixed picture of impact on women’s rights. Special concern is paid to encroaching limitations to women’s access to resources, as well as to their representation and participation in formal decision-making; increased incidents of gender-based violence. These worrying observations are accompanied by hopeful examples of women leading the response to the COVID-19 crisis and finding ways to negotiate equitable relationships with men in their communities, as well as with their husbands/male partners at home.
High humanitarian needs are not being met in the current crisis. Before the impact of COVID-19, of the estimated 500 million people living in West Africa, 44 million people would have depended on humanitarian assistance in 2020. Now, with widespread government lockdowns, humanitarian actors are having increased difficulty reaching those in need. More than 80 percent of the rural population rely on subsistence farming in West Africa, and any disruption to current and upcoming agricultural seasons will have a long-term incremental impact on the region, especially on women who are on the frontline.
Women’s economic position is at high risk. World Bank projections around the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts forecast a slowdown in economic growth from 3.2% to 1.8%, as well as a reduction to the already low human development score.3 This will hit women especially hard as they dominate the informal work sector. Women with small businesses; especially those selling food in markets, near offices, and in schools; are already seeing a drop in their incomes. That is, when they can go to the market at all. Most female savings groups and VSLA’s have suspended loans and repayments. Closing international borders and market limitations are having significant impacts on informal traders.
Gender based violence is increasing. Women are suffering from more gender based violence due to general social stress combined with the increasing tensions surrounding having the family constantly sequestered at home, on top of limited access to food and basic supplies. The informal social safety nets and networks many women previously relied on for support are now weakened due to reduced physical mobility and social distancing.
Fear is creating as many barriers as official restrictions. Even when services are available, including markets or health centers, people are afraid to access them due to fear around COVID-19. This contributes to a huge level of stress for everyone, and very few mental health services exist that can offset this need for support.
People are already losing access to basic needs like food, soap, and supplies. As incomes fall and prices rise, families are having decide between buying food and buying soap. Most of them are choosing to buy food first, which makes it hard to maintain the hygiene practices necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many families are also reducing the number of meals they eat. Ramadan is creating a distinct challenge, as some families with the means to do so stocked up on their Ramadan necessities early, which further depleted existing market stocks for others.
Women are struggling to access health services. Women confirm that governments and health clinics have diverted energy and attention away from Sexual Reproductive and Health and Rights (SRHR) services. Between social distancing slowing down all service provisions and the fear of attending clinics, it is very hard for women to access SRHR services. A decreasing number of youth accessing health services was also noted.
Misinformation is easier to access than official information. People are relying heavily on traditional healers, and rumors are spreading faster than official government information. At the same time, women and youth have little access to traditional information channels like TV and radio because men control these outlets in the household. Additionally, broadcasts sharing information are usually shared at times when women are doing domestic labor like cooking or collecting water.
Women reported WhatsApp to be the most preferred source of information, as the application is accessible for illiterate populations.
Women are taking the lead to organize responses. Women are finding ways to share information as well as making and selling masks and soap to curb the spread of COVID-19. VSLA members are changing their group methodology to allow for social distancing and to support hygiene while maintaining solidarity and safety nets.
Social norms may be shifting. There are hopeful signs of men doing more childcare work now that children are at home all the time, and some signs of men and women doing more joint decisionmaking during the COVID-19 crisis.