A woman does care work at her home in Kyaka II refugee settlement, Kyengegwa District, in Western Uganda.

The Coronavirus Lockdown is Increasing Care Work for Ugandan Women

The current global coronavirus pandemic has put insurmountable pressure on the world economies but invisibly, it has also increased the care workload of women. For women like Stella, the extra burden brought by the coronavirus lockdown is far from what she ever imagined. In her own words, “Kika!” loosely translated as “It is too much,” Stella still maintains her office job but is expected to work from home. “I am taking care of the children who are now home and a husband whose business had to shut.” Her day involves among others cooking meals, helping the children with homework, sometimes walking out to the market to buy food, washing dishes, and clothes all on top of ensuring she is delivering at her office work. Her prayer is that none of the household members gets sick as that would be another load on her.

The majority of the carers in our society are women who are spending the greatest part of their time caring for their loved ones, including extended family members. In doing so, they sacrifice their health, deplete their limited household assets, and in other instances face violence from their spouses for failure to carry out care duties. According to an Oxfam/UWONET 2018 report on gender roles and care economy in Uganda, an average of 32.1% female home caregivers in Uganda report to have suffered illness, injury, depression, physical and or mental harm from their caregiving roles, while the UBOS 2016 report indicates 16.6% caregivers reported insomnia, stress, anxiety, anguish, and worry

While globally and in Uganda, males are said to be more susceptible to the virus according to various news reports, compared to women, the women are the ones that carry the workload of looking after the sick. Even at the health front, 70% of the world’s health workers are women, and they are the ones most likely to be on the front line and exposed to infection. For Uganda, restrictions on the use of private cars and public transport along with curfew are further keeping some of the patients home in the hands of women and girls.

Despite the contribution women make, unpaid care is not considered as a key development issue for most countries. According to ‘Time to Care’, an Oxfam 2020 report, the monetary value of unpaid care work globally for women aged 15 and over is at least $10.8 trillion annually – three times the size of the world’s tech industry. For a country like Uganda, where statistics show women spend 8 hours daily on domestic and unpaid care work compared to men who spend only four hours, it is worrying that there is no stand-alone policy on unpaid care and domestic work.

The care workload is not getting any easier for women like Stella along with other risks that the pandemic exposes women to. Some studies have shown that in times of crisis like COVID-19, disruption to families, and daily routines have consequences, especially for women and children.

As businesses and jobs across the country have been affected, people are struggling to cope, and women’s vulnerability has increased. In order to continue feeding their families, some women have had to sleep in the makeshift markets as compliance with the Presidential directive in order to sustain their business. This exposes them to risks such as rape, hygiene related diseases as well as conflict with their families. In other instances, people have likely resorted to negative coping mechanisms like increased uptake of alcohol as well as selling household items in order to afford food.

Coronavirus has exposed negative masculinity, that exists in our societies and dictates the ways of life. With the current situation where most businesses are closed and the state is providing relief food to sustain households, some of the men are feeling emasculated as this is questioning their superiority powers to provide for the families. This is also contributing to domestic violence. Domestic violence which was already prevalent in society is said to be on an increase. According to the Uganda police, cases of domestic violence have increased with the lockdown. The independent magazine reported that as of April 16th, 2020, police had recorded 328 cases of domestic violence since the beginning of the lockdown on 31st March 2020. Media reports indicate that five people have died due to domestic violence.

The reality is that even after the country opens up, women are more likely to continue suffering the consequences of the pandemic. Women account for the biggest percentage of people engaged in vulnerable employment or the informal sector and this has greatly been affected, in turn giving little or no social job security for the women. Given that they are also employed in the lowest paying sectors and therefore likely save less, they are at risk of depleting their little savings during this lockdown and yet with no hope of immediately finding gainful alternative work outside the home.

Essential services that would address some of the underlying risks as well as reduce the time women spend on unpaid care work are difficult to access during the lockdown. For example, several households both in rural and urban centers do not have nearby access to water, and yet this is an essential commodity. 34% of villages in Uganda do not have a single source of safe water according to a 2018 Ministry of Water and Environment sector performance report. People in these villages have to walk long distances to access water from the rivers, springs and, ponds. As primary caregivers, several women are hard-pressed with ensuring the hygiene of their families as well as adhering to the strict requirements of physical distancing, staying at home, and observing curfew measures.

As the country focuses on containing the epidemic, it must also support the most vulnerable who have had to shoulder the biggest burden of the crisis. It is crucial to recognize and address these unique challenges that lockdown measures present to women.

Emphasis needs to be put on prevention measures which include addressing the current underlying causes of violence as well as the increased care burden of women.

As part of the public campaign, the coronavirus task force in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender should creatively incorporate public messaging on sharing care work as well as having violence-free homes. This can include using role models that are challenging social norms in their homes and equally engaging in care work. This will ensure that care work is not being left to just the women and girls but shared across the family members. There is no better time than now when women, men, boys, and girls are all at home with minimal alternative activities outside the homes.

The Government needs to invest in infrastructure and services that support the reduction of unpaid care and domestic work like water sources. To ensure that these priorities are included in the planning, budgeting, and allocation, the national and district task force should ensure that women with care responsibilities are represented in the most practical, safe, and meaningful ways possible.

As the Government works on practical ways to ease the lockdown and gradually open up the country back to normal, an exclusive care policy needs to be put in place to consolidate all the piecemeal provisions in the different policies that could guide robust care investments in national planning frameworks. This comprehensive policy would also cater to care sensitive responses in the face of crises of such magnitude as the coronavirus.

We all need to come out of this crisis able to contribute to the national economy. This will only be possible if the Government pays critical attention to addressing the burden of care work and its associated risks.