Globally, women have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; from the burden of care, to legislation written for women but not by them. And this is on top of existing inequalities. In this first Conversation Lab, by Accountability Lab South Africa, a powerhouse of women panelists explored how government policies can be shaped to better support women during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. Written by Samina Anwary


South African women contribute 50% of the country’s GDP despite lower wages, live in one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women, and face a myriad of other barriers to entry and success.

The Conversation Lab event, supported by the Danish Embassy in South Africa, unpacked these challenges in a solutions-oriented way. The panel was facilitated by author Sisonke Msimang, who spoke to UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Health Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, award-winning health journalist Pontsho Pilane, Head of Fundraising for Rise Up Against Gender Based Violence Mandisa Khanyile, and gender activist and scholar Naleli Morojele. The five women are highly respected in their fields, and their discussion was incredibly insightful and knowledgeable. 

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp relief the gaps in our social and economic support structures, panelists pointed out. On the flip side, it has also shown that with political will it is possible to make policy and legislative change very quickly. South Africa’s government and citizens moved quickly to combat the pandemic. This speed and agility is something we desperately need to see applied to the country’s gender based violence scourge, panelists noted – especially now that we know it’s possible. 

As an example, under level 5 lockdown, women complained that baby clothes were not listed as essential items. The Gender Commission, with other advocacy groups and organisations were able, in a short space of time, to reverse it. “It’s important to grab on to these experiences and demand the same effectiveness we’ve seen with COVID-19 around the nature of data collection, government communication and having ministers feedback regularly and central procurement”, said Dr Mofokeng. “There has been corruption yes, but we saw what was possible. We need that same effort with gender based violence”.

Political leadership that recognises and prioritises women’s needs and struggles, along with political will, could dramatically affect policy and legislative change for the better. 

Panelists also noted that South African women – particularly black women – were responsible for raising and sustaining most of the country’s population through their largely unrecognised social and economic contribution. This ranged from single mothers to grandmothers, teachers and childminders. Health journalist, Pontsho Pilane emphasised that having female leadership was not enough; we need leadership who are actively pro-women. “For us to have women-friendly policies, we need to have women-friendly leaders”, she pointed out.

When it came to unemployment too, black women were the most affected demographic in the country. They also make up the majority of informal traders. Policies around what kinds of businesses were allowed to trade under hard lockdown highlighted how those in the informal sector – fresh produce sellers for example –  were excluded even though they traded in essential items. This left a vital, women-run sector needlessly vulnerable.

Activist and scholar Morejele said: “It shows a lack of care and thoughtfulness from our government. It shows how certain industries, work and people are more legitimate than others. Why should the informal sector be viewed as less legitimate than the formal sector? Both are participants in and contributors to the economy.”

Dr Mofokeng, meanwhile, spoke to lingering apartheid-era legislation that has still not been overhauled to reflect our democratic reality. She alluded to the inherent distrust of grant recipients’ ability to handle money effectively being evident in the way they receive their money: “It makes no sense for gogos [grandmothers] to be queueing and sleeping at night at an ATM, every third week. Why can’t you give people money every quarter?”

Panelists agreed that how the most vulnerable in a society are catered for – or not catered for – especially in a crisis is a measure of how well a country is doing altogether. In order for women to be better protected and supported, government needs to recognise and cater to the existing society where women are primary caregivers, often breadwinners and – despite consistent restrictions – massive contributors to the economy. 

“You need policy in the workplace that enables women to thrive, and ensure the women you put in positions have political power and authority to effect change,” said Dr Mofokeng. “In every sector we work in, we need to be pushing ahead and asking the difficult questions about accountability”.