Gweru — As the global Covid 19 pandemic takes its toll on Africa and countries beyond, the virus has brought with it more socio-economic challenges whose effects will be felt now and in the long term. COVID 19's differential impact on women and men social and psychological state can never be ignored.
The government of Zimbabwe took advantage of the lock down period, which began on the 30th of March to implement a smart cities design which will see new and modern vending stalls and market places constructed across various towns. Cabinet resolved and instructed local authorities to take advantage of the national lock down to clean up and renovate small and medium enterprises and informal traders' work spaces. To that effect Gweru city council issued an ultimatum for vendors to clear their wares and pave way for demolition of Kudzanayi terminus market and Kombayi vegetable and grain markets in order to pave way for the construction of modern facilities.
The announcement of the demolition came as a shock to the over 20 thousand vendors whose livelihood solely depended on these marketplaces. According to the local authority those people were allocated a new operating space where they are expected to operate from in the next 6 months. But the big question remains that what will they be surviving on in the meantime?
Zimbabwe National Chamber of Small to Medium Enterprises (ZCSME) Gweru chapter chairperson Tafadzwa Mazorodze said the affected vendors were registered with the local authority and the move will grossly affect council operations.
"The demolitions left over 20 thousand lives affected and this figure is dominated by women and young people who are family breadwinners and were contributing significantly on council revenue as they paid their rates and levies. To date, since the lockdown was effected on March 30, council has lost about $2 million dollars monthly in revenue from business of Kombayi and Kudzanayi markets."
Faced by a saddening reality, economically active men and women of Gweru are now stuck in their homes, with no source of income, no recreation and entertainment facilities. Households are silently becoming centers of violence and conflict.
Women now say they are suffering a double blow in households since there has been growing tension between husbands and wives due to unemployment. During this confinement, it is no doubt members of a household will be competing for limited basic resources within the home, gender inequality may mean women and girls have less access during this lockdown period.
Home is where one should feel safe and secure. For many women and girls, home has become a place of violence and increased intra-family tensions. Confinement to the home increases tensions that can promote the breakdown of an already weakened family dynamic and bring serious risks of violence.
"I curse the Covid19 pandemic for the suffering that I am going through right now. We both worked in Kudzanayi marketplace where we were selling potatoes with my husband. Now that we are both unemployed, my husband is highly frustrated and is always quick to get angry. Any silly mistake will see him lay his hands on my face. All my life I had never had violence encounters with my husband." said Lydia Maseko of Mkoba village 9 in Gweru.
Twenty-five-year-old Stabile Mangena said the lockdown period has not been easy for her as she has to endure frequent sex needs of her husband.
"Truly I am no longer enjoying my marriage. My husband has developed an insatiable appetite for sex and is always on me. I tried to engage my aunt and my other church women elders to help me on how to deal with the challenge but their response has been cold. They say it is taboo to deny sex to your husband but I strongly feel that my body can no longer handle it and may face challenges in the long term. We live in one room and I have no breathing space at all. My struggles are real but nobody seems to understand me."
A WhatsApp group discussion with young ladies conducted by this reporter reflected that the challenge is quite a familiar phenomenon amongst young women in urban areas.
Gogo Mamoyo, a 65-year-old woman who was popular for selling traditional seeds and grains in the Kombayi vegetable and grain market said the abrupt dismissal from her workstation was a total blow to her health as she is now suffering from chronic conditions including blood pressure and heart disease.
"It is not easy just to wake up and be told that you are now under solitary confinement in your household. The way we worked at the market had a healing mechanism towards my chronic conditions. I would interact with others and also make some money for my selfcare. Now I am confined in the house and I feel like the world has rejected me. I long for the day when the pandemic disappears and I can reclaim my life back."
Some women from Woodlands park in Gweru say the household tension induced by unemployment is also affecting children who are now finding solace in grouping as young people and going to a nearby dumpsite to collect reusable plastics.
"The situation in our households is not easy. Parents are now fighting in front of their children and this is highly affecting the mental state of our children who are currently not going to school. Children end up breaking the lockdown regulations by teaming up and going to the nearby dumpsite where they usually collect reusable plastics for resale. Of late some children have collected used facemask and this really poses danger to their families and communities", said a Woodlands park resident.
A local ward councillor, Catherine Mhondiwa said Covid19 has brought more challenges for women and the girl child in urban areas where females are burdened with more household responsibilities.
As a city we are experiencing erratic water supplies and most women have to rely on community boreholes to fetch water. It is usually the girl child who is given the responsibility to fetch water and it is disheartening to note that girls have been victims of violence at waterpoints as macho man dominate there. My office has received various reports of some girls and women who were assaulted at waterpoints. We have since engaged the police to assist in that regard."
It is currently reported that women on average visit the boreholes three times a day to fetch water in urban suburbs where hordes of people are gathering trying to access the precious liquid from boreholes and other unprotected water sources. In most cases, without adequate water and sanitation these settings themselves may be a locus for the spread of the disease.
An educational psychologist, Sifelani Innocent said the prolonged lockdown is subjecting children to anxiety, worry and stress due to various household realities.
"Children who experience and witness domestic violence are affected on their psychological wellbeing. The tension between parents is likely to cause violence to children in the name of discipline as they vent their frustrations.
Musasa Project, a leading organisation offering counselling and support to abused women, said it recorded 764 cases of gender-based violence (GBV)in the first month of the lockdown. Rape, physical violence, sexual violence, verbal abuse, violence and murder threats, psychological abuse, denial of food and house lock outs were recorded as leading forms of abuse.
Musasa Project Director Precious Taru says Violence and abuse is mostly driven by people who already have abusive tendencies; economic insecurity and poverty-related stress, family care demands, alcohol and drug abuse, or withdrawal problems, quarrels over family management or child care issues; disease and health care problems, sex and conjugal rights issues.
Fatima Mapuke, a Community Psychologist, said there is a danger that the lockdown will likely expose those with underlying mental health issues, who might not handle the new situation well, to abusive crimes, both as a victim and perpetrator.
'The reality of COVID-19 is stressful in itself; the longer people have to share the same space, the more likely they are going to step on each other's toes. There is general panic which might exacerbate mental health symptoms to everyone also causing others to become abusers while others become victims hence, we encourage people in these times to be calmer and more gracious to each other'
Meanwhile women advocacy organisation, Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) believes there has been gender gaps in the national response to the Covid19. Florence Guzha, vice chairperson of the WCoZ Gweru chapter says women should be central in the programming and response to the emergency.
"It is clear that the government's commitment to safeguarding and sustaining the lives of vulnerable citizens has been questionable in light of Covid 19. The government made a huge assumption that homes are safe, but it is disappointingly clear that homes are not safe for women. There is no adequate information regarding Gender Based Violence reporting mechanisms and online support services for victims of gender-based violence outlined in the COVID19 response initiatives to protect women and girls at risk."
According to UNFPA, about 1 in 3 women in Zimbabwe aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
Locadia Mavhudzi is a journalist from Zimbabwe