COVID-19 measures in Uganda are pushing women out of the workforce

International Women’s Day is marked on 8 March. The day is celebrated across the world to recognise milestones made towards women empowerment and equality.

While there is a lot to celebrate across the globe, this year’s commemoration also coincides with a major threat to the gains of women — the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda a year ago this month.

Measures required to curb the spread of coronavirus, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, have had immense social and economic impacts, hitting women particularly hard.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, women continue to disproportionately shoulder burdens — from lost jobs, businesses, additional unpaid care work, to an increase in domestic violence.

While measures are being established to slowly bring back normalcy, some of the proposals increase gender inequality by overlooking the particular challenges faced by women. On 1 February 2021, the cabinet resolved to keep pre-primary schools (kindergarten and nurseries) closed throughout the COVID -19 season and instead start their education in primary one. According to Minister of Education Janet Museveni, these learners are too young to observe SOPs and are also at a high risk of contracting respiratory infections like COVID-19.

As a mother of three fireballs aged between 5 months and 3.5 years, I understand how the never-ending colds affect children, turning one into an overnight doctor. The further thought of them contracting COVID-19 sends chills down the spine.

However, while having a sick child is every parent’s fear, the inability to provide for the child, including providing appropriate health care, is worse than the disease itself. The proposed indefinite closure of kindergartens and nurseries will not only affect the children and the school owners, but also keep several women out of the workforce, affecting their livelihoods.

Many working women, including myself, rely heavily on these kindergartens, nurseries and day-care centres as alternate safe care spaces for the children. If these cannot safely reopen, many women will be unable to stay in the labour force because they cannot leave their children unattended. According to an Oxfam and UWONET report published in 2018, there is disproportionate responsibility women have in childcare. The report, covering the districts of Kaabong, Kabale, and Kampala, shows that out of every five women at least two were responsible for looking after a child below 18 in comparison to one out of every five men. The margins are even wider between women and men in urban areas compared to those in rural areas

Even before the pandemic, there were more unemployed women (11 percent) than men (8 percent) and these numbers grew amidst COVID-19. A survey conducted by EPRC in April 2020 shows that small businesses have been hit hardest, with close to 600,000 jobs lost temporarily, of which more than 80% of job losses were in the service sector which employs more women. We surely cannot be pushing more women into this stark statistic.

From another perspective, the children are not any safer out of school where strict SOPs could minimize risks. Many women are employed in the informal sector, including in low-wage and face-to-face small businesses. Where there are no options, these women move with their children to work as seen on the streets of Kampala. This I believe exposes and puts children at risk. In instances where children or other household members fall sick, the responsibility of looking after them falls heavily on the women who must put work on hold.

Besides, these day-care centres and nurseries rely heavily on an underpaid, primarily female, workforce. So, closing them indefinitely leaves these already struggling women out of work.

Susan, a nursery teachers I know said she is struggling with the government’s decision to keep pre-schools closed. As a single mother of two, Susan has relied on her small teaching salary to keep her older child, an 11-year-old, in primary school. She then depends on the goodwill of the nursery school where she teaches for fees discounts to keep her youngest there. “Closure of nurseries means I am out of work,” she said. “My younger child is out of school and so is the older one because I cannot afford the school fees. I was excited about being able to go back to work and my children resuming school, but I am now struggling with finding an option. I must take care of my children regardless.”

As we commemorate International Women’s Day under the global theme of Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world, we must reflect on the anti-pandemic measures and how they are affecting women like Susan. The ministry of education needs to wear a gender lens and re-asses the decision to keep kindergartens and nurseries closed.