College of Human Sciences

Despairing during lockdown

Poverty in South Africa, coupled with the country’s high level of unemployment or employment in the insecure and informal sectors, means that the daily life of many of its citizens is a perpetual struggle. The feminisation of poverty denotes that women, particularly female-headed households, are generally much poorer than men. This is because women are more likely to be unemployed; indeed, the unemployment rate for women in South Africa is higher than the national average, with only four out of ten women employed and for black women the figure escalates to 50%.

Those women who are fortunate enough to be employed, find themselves over-represented in low-skilled, low-paying jobs and dominating the informal sector and domestic work, the most unregulated and exploitative categories of labour. This fiscal incongruity is further intensified by the perpetual and gendered wage gap that exists between male and female earners, with South African women on average, earning 23% less than men.

In addition, the lack of adequate social security and the denial of basic services has seen many women forced to shoulder the burden of survival through the unpaid labour economy. Undeniably, these domestic responsibilities and care work in South African households remain divided along stereotypical gender role expectations and is inherent in female breadwinner homes which are typified by low marriage rates and absent father figures.

This wide range of serious obstacles that prevent women in South Africa from attaining complete equality, suggests that the Covid-19 outbreak and its rapidly unfolding health, social and economic crises, will have a disproportionate effect on women. Preliminary reports on the gendered effects of Covid-19 in South Africa indicate that during this year’s 27 March to 30 April Level 5 "hard" lockdown, 1.9 million women lost their jobs in South Africa, compared to the 1 million job losses faced by their male counterparts.

Dr Bianca Parry has been a lecturer and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Unisa since 2016. Her main research focus is on the lived experiences of marginalised communities in South African society, with a particular focus on women and gender.

Furthermore, with schools closed and restrictions placed on movement between residences, childcare responsibilities increased, resulting in 80% of women reporting that they performed over four hours extra on these tasks since the lockdown, compared to 64% of men. This is particularly worrying for South African female-headed households, who on average contain a larger proportion of children. The gendered division of labour is particularly onerous for female-headed households, as these responsibilities can influence their ability to earn a wage and provide for their families.

Of further concern is that no data on unpaid economy and burden of cleaning, cooking, fetching water, and son on, have been recorded during this period. This societal imposition of a gendered time-tax on women throughout their daily lives has detrimental implications for their participation in the paid reproduction of labour. It seems fair to say that in a society structured under the notions of patriarchy, where it is a woman’s social responsibility to take care of all things relating to the home, the gendered homemaking role is one that patriarchy in capitalist economies have ensured is never valued and seems as if it is not of value to researchers during the Covid-19 pandemic either.

One area of consequence for women during the pandemic that has garnered research interest is its impact on increasing levels of gender-based violence (GBV) in the home. The United Nations has highlighted these abuses as a shadow pandemic, escalating during the chaos of the Covid-19 global crisis. As a country that battles daily with the scourge of GBV and femicide, this prediction should be of resounding alarm. The Gender-Based Violence Command Centre, a nationwide South African call centre facility, has reported receiving between 500 and 1 000 calls a day since the hard lockdown started, with social workers who are responsible for call-taking and call referrals struggling to keep up.

Unfortunately for female breadwinners, research has revealed that their position does not lead to more egalitarian gender relations. A research study that I conducted on the lived experiences of South African female breadwinners revealed a combative environment where male partners of these women feel justified to commit acts of violence against them as their masculine identity is threatened. This is not unique to female breadwinner homes, as numerous studies have found that patriarchal attitudes and strict adherence to traditional gender roles create an imbalance of power that results in gender inequality and discriminatory practices against women, both of which are regarded to be root causes of GBV.

It is clear that poverty and victimisation patterns are inherently influenced by gender. As with all inequalities facing our societies worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the difficult and dangerous lived conditions of our most vulnerable communities. As we navigate the unknown, new reality of this pandemic and lockdown in the coming months, what is also clear, is that now, even more than before, it is difficult and dangerous to be a woman in South Africa.

* By Bianca Parry, PhD, Lecturer and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Psychology, College of Human Sciences

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Publish date: 2020/08/06