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International Women’s Day, 2021
Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) - International Women’s day 2021 heralds a particularly challenging time for women and girls. The Covid pandemic has battered our world to such an extent that we know that our lives have been irrevocably changed and has rolled back some of the gains we made in the human rights and gender equality field.

Lesley Ann Foster

South Africa has the most infections and deaths on the African continent. Women suffered the brunt of the pandemic due mainly to the inequality in our country that existed prior to this health disaster.

Some 2,6 million jobs were lost with two out of every three jobs lost being lost to women. Women constitute the bulk of informal traders and are largely found in the travel and hospitality industry which was hard hit by the pandemic. The lock down saw children and students working from home and men who lost jobs returned home as well. The burden of care fell largely to women. Women took on the responsibility of caring for the sick, the infected and many who lost family members had the burden of funerals placed at their doorstep. Food insecurity was at its highest levels in spite of the social grants that the state made available to try to mitigate the hunger deepened by the pandemic.

Stepping up

85 women’s groups who are part of a network of rural women’s groups that Masimanyane Women’s Rights International supports, provided leadership at great cost with some lives lost to the pandemic. Yet, women activists and human rights defenders braved the storm of the pandemic to feed people by approaching suppliers to donate food, establishing family gardens and sourcing water. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) rose sharply during Covid due to existing inequality and harsh lock down regulations resulting in isolation from support systems.

Masimanyane Women’s Rights International (MWRI)developed responses that dealt with the structural impediments and providing care and support.

We were cognisant of the inequality in our society and initiated a policy to guide our responses to the pandemic grounded in a gender inequality perspective.

Secondly we addressed the needs of women on the ground by taking our face to face engagements with women and communities onto online platforms to avert the risk of infection. This revealed inequality through digital poverty and illiteracy, a lack of working space at home, limited access to connectivity and data and a lack of smart resources. We developed a structured plan to overcome these obstacles.

Mental health problems emerged early into the Covid pandemic based on fear, anxiety, stress, depression and suicide. We pre-empted this and included mental health protocols for self-care. We advocated for increased mental health support for women through national structures. The rise in deaths prompted us to conduct bereavement and grief counselling to ensure the necessary skills in responding to deaths. When the hunger levels grew, we secured a humanitarian grant to provide women with food vouchers to assist in food security.

MWRI applied its care and support internally by providing staff with a strengthened health support through the provision of immune boosting supplements, flu vaccinations and personal protective equipment. These safety measures reduced the risk to staff as we had only three infections out of 62 staff members.

Structural developments

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, our organisation was deeply involved in a presidential committee that was tasked to develop a national strategic plan on gender based violence and femicide (NSP GBVF). This NSP GBVF was completed in March 2020 and signed off in April 2020. This plan addresses gender inequality and recognises it as a key driver of GBVF. We worked with partners nationally to develop referral pathways so that women in situations of isolation could reach support services. We developed a data base of women’s organisations in each province that could provide a rapid response to calls for assistance. We gathered data in an attempt to provide a snapshot of how women were experiencing the lock down.


We monitored the impact of COVID-19 on the economy generally and on women specifically. We found that women were suffering the most from job loses, from the docking of their pay and from retrenchments. While the government put a social grant system in place to assist the poor communities, women were the least likely to access those grants due to social impediments impeding access. Food insecurity grew and women bore the brunt of that too.

MWRI was able to approach donors and request humanitarian support to provide food vouchers which helped in small measure to alleviate hunger for some families.


When confronting a national disaster, we have to apply a strong gender analysis before we try to thread the response needle. It was important to provide a comprehensive and holistic response to the Covid pandemic by working on the structural inequalities through policy formulation, programme development and resource allocation. It is critical that the immediate needs of women at the rock face be addressed with urgency in a crisis.

We salute the women whose courage, strength and resilience was evident throughout the pandemic and applaud their on-going activism to dismantle structural inequality.

The author is Executive Director Masimanyane Women’s Rights International, South Africa


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