- With the national lockdown still in effect, many women who rely on their domestic worker jobs open up about the struggles they're currently facing
- For many domestic workers, it's a sombre time as it's 'no work, no pay' for them
- Women in informal settlements are further burdened with the lockdown and concerned that they cannot do all that is necessary to protect against the coronavirus
- Professor Nirmala Gopal said civil society organisations and government need to collaborate and empower women in informal settlements
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By Neesha Maharaj - Freelance Journalist
THE World Health Organisation (WHO) and health practitioners alike have urged people to practise good hygiene as a starting point to guard against contracting the coronavirus, however, this is a challenging task for women in informal settlements who have to live amidst poor sanitation systems and overcrowded makeshift homes.
Associate Professor Nirmala Gopal, a researcher and acting Dean at the School of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), highlighted the vulnerabilities of women living in informal settlements during a webinar that discussed the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of people within different echelons in society.
Gopal said women living in informal settlements face a myriad of problems normally which were heightened during the lockdown.
“Most of these women are employed as domestic workers with little or no help during the lockdown. They are concerned about their children being affected by the coronavirus because of the close proximity of houses and gregarious nature of people living in these areas. They lack access to running water, they share ablution facilities and at night are fearful of visiting these facilities because of criminals lurking in the dark.
“Many of the women are single parents. Some of the young women are heading households prematurely. They lack the resources to purchase nutritional food. They don’t have the means of accessing online learning for their children because of the nature of the schools they attend.
"The women are concerned that the lockdown might mean their children will have to repeat the school year, hence placing further financial burdens on them. Some of these women also have to contend with gender-based violence at the hands of their partners, other family members or community members,” said Gopal.
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With the myriad of challenges they encounter, Gopal asked how health practitioners expect them to guard themselves against the coronavirus. These women are unfortunately stuck in a rut, said Gopal, and rely on charity from government and NGOs.
One woman with five other relatives, Sindisiswe Sithole, a domestic worker who lives in the Bottlebrush informal settlement in Moorton, Chatsworth, said life has been miserable since the lockdown. She lives in the settlement with her sister and three children aged between 5-10 years old.
“I cannot work since the president said there’s a lockdown. With me, it’s no work no pay. I do temporary work at three different houses six days a week. My bosses said they don’t need me during lockdown.
"I am worried if I will still have my jobs after lockdown. I’m suffering because I don’t have money and only get food from my sister who collects the grant for her children. She also finds it hard now.
“We are also scared that we will get the coronavirus. Our homes are very close to other people. We see the other people going out every day when they not supposed to. They might get the virus and bring it to our homes. We don’t have enough water and our toilets are bad. Hand sanitisers and masks are expensive and we can’t buy it,” she said
Another woman, Martha Mshali from the Burlington informal settlement in Shallcross, Durban is a single mother with two teenage daughters.
She works as a domestic worker near her home but was not working since the lockdown.
“I am worried that I won’t have a job after the lockdown. We hear how people are not getting paid or may lose their jobs so how are they going to pay me. I have to feed my children and send them to school.
"We cannot buy toiletries and it’s hard to wash our hands often with a little soap and water. We cannot buy masks and hand sanitisers because we cannot afford it.
“I cannot claim UIF because I am a temp worker. I’m worried my children or I will get sick and then we are finished,” she added.
Gopal said the emergence of the coronavirus has reiterated the need for action aimed at getting this category of women out of the challenging circumstances they live under. As a way forward she suggested collaborative efforts between civil society and government to empower the women.
“Begin entrepreneurial skills programmes in a coordinated manner and link them to businesses that they are able to supply their merchandise to.
"Big businesses should combine their social responsibility with these efforts to create demand for the women’s products.
"The combined initiative must provide start-up training and finances to begin the production process. Women should be empowered to manage their finances, be creative and solve their problems,” added Gopal.
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