From New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Covid-19 has been shining a light on women and paving the way for new thinking in global leadership. But, in Africa, has it been so? A look through the gender lens of the pandemic.
In March, shortly after Liberia confirmed its first case of Covid-19, Cornelia Kruah-Togba got to work. The 30-year-old women’s rights advocate was alarmed by the devastation the Ebola outbreak wreaked in her hometown, Monrovia, back in 2014. This time around, she was determined not to leave anything to chance.
“During Ebola, [public] doubt led to a lot of people dying so we had to make sure that our people were getting involved in this fight early on. We set up a coronavirus ‘taskforce’, identifying major intersections where most people gathered and set up hand-washing stations, in addition to executing a counter-conspiracy campaign. There has been a lot to do to help people realize that this is a genuine threat and that they should act accordingly.”
Kruah-Togba’s fast action and considered strategy have had an impact. New cases in the Liberian capital have been on a downward trend since July. Her initiative, even at community-level, is no different from those celebrated in Taiwan, Germany and South Korea. In each of these countries, women leaders have been credited with containing and even, in the case of Jacinda Ardern’s Premiership in New Zealand, completely eradicating Covid-19.
While we have to be careful not to generalize that these outcomes have purely been a result of having women at the helm, they remain legacies of their leadership.
In stark contrast, similar examples have been slow to emerge in Africa. Many, like Kruah-Togba, are working in localized contexts, far from the glare of mainstream media.
But what about women in public view? Why are they missing in our stories of the pandemic?
We have a lot of work to do [in order] to make leadership and decision-making in the ‘war room’ more gendered.”
Women are on a number of the continent’s policy-making tables, says Madjiguene Sock, Partner at Dalberg Advisors, a global consultancy firm in Dakar, Senegal. Working in an advisory capacity with a number of public health organizations around the continent, she has observed that, while women may be in positions of power, they are often forced to take a back-seat during crises like Covid-19.
“The face of the emergency response institutions in the countries [that I’ve worked in] have been 100% male. However, women continue to be very present, for example, in the Ministry of Health… but in terms of the response, where it’s more military-like, men tend to be in [leadership] positions.
“We have a lot of work to do [in order] to make leadership and decision-making in the ‘war room’ more gendered,” she notes.
Indeed, it is quite paradoxical that African women have a concerted role in peacetime yet are sidelined in emergencies. However, the recent Ebola crisis has inspired action.
“We started paying attention to gender because of Ebola. The Minister of Health in Senegal, at the time, was a woman and so were many others in the region. But [back then], gender was not the question. [With Covid-19], we have been thinking about setting up EOCs [Emergency Operation Centers] with gender in mind. Something interesting is that the decisions being made in terms of setting up these EOCs have been made by women. But once we set up these platforms, we revert back to masculine leadership,” says Sock.
Gendered responses to the pandemic, and similar crises, are far greater than representation. They also impact outcomes.
In April, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged the world’s governments and policy-makers to prioritize women and girls in Covid-19 policies. This is because they represent a majority of the pandemic’s victims, not in terms of mortality, but economically and socially, simply by virtue of their gender.
A month after Guterres’ injunction, female politicians from seven African countries gathered in an African Union teleconference to discuss ways to enhance their leadership in the Covid-19 response.
The meeting was chaired by Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and Kenya’s Raychelle Awuor Omamo, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, supported by UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J Mohammed from Nigeria.
They all agreed that, given the adverse impact on women, the deficits in gendered leadership, and the rise of women on the frontlines of the pandemic, a profound paradigm shift on the continent was needed. The meeting underscored the fact that business cannot, and should not, continue as usual.
However, commitment alone is not enough. The conditions that make inclusion possible are quite complex. Based in Nairobi, public health practitioner, Lolem Ngong, an American with enduring Cameroonian roots, is Chief of Staff at Amref Health Africa, an NGO committed to improving healthcare systems across the continent. In her view, leadership within the sector varies widely, especially through the gender lens.
“I think women in public health crave to see other women around the table, they want to make sure that the voice of frontline workers [who are mostly women] are represented and that they’re working to create a better life for the communities that they serve. This spirit drives leadership [in the sector]. It’s not to say that men [in public health] don’t do this but I think the experience of men is quite different. They have either been in authoritative positions or seen other men in similar positions and this drives a certain style of leadership,” posits Ngong.
However, even within public health, there isn’t a prescriptive feminine, ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of leadership.
For Ngong, her own role during this pandemic has been particularly varied given the evolving situation.
“Building on the work of dedicated colleagues at Amref, my role has mostly revolved around trying to streamline processes, strategy and advising on issues. During this pandemic we all work unusual hours, it could be 6AM to 11PM… it’s intense, but it’s part of our commitment and it’s leadership. As a leader in this pandemic, I have found that I’ve really had to draw on a lot of my skills and introspect,” she says.
Beyond differing approaches, there is also a major blind-spot in gender responses to Covid-19, and similar crises, in Africa.
“We can throw out numbers when talking about [female] representation [in Africa] across the board. But the truth is, within public health, we just don’t have the data. This points to why our policies are so gender-blind. What do you use to inform policy? You need data!”
“Covid-19 has undone almost a year’s worth of work. In parts of northern Kenya, families are taking advantage of the prolonged period that kids have been at home to perform FGM in the cover of darkness.”
The lack of gender-specific data points to why even growing female representation, even at the higher level, is still having lacklustre results for women on the ground, particularly during this pandemic.
Nevertheless, there have been coordinated efforts from women, in other sectors of society, to safeguard those affected by these policies.
Amina Abdulla is Country Director at Concern Worldwide, a global NGO operating in Kenya. Since the start of the pandemic, she’s noticed that progress made on women’s rights issues, such as eradicating child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), has been eroding.
“Covid-19 has undone almost a year’s worth of work. In parts of northern Kenya, families are taking advantage of the prolonged period that kids have been at home to perform FGM in the cover of darkness. [With curfew], there is limited activity from 7PM onwards [so] that is when they [choose to] perform this on their girls,” she says.
Culturally, within these communities, once a girl undergoes this form of mutilation, she is considered ready for marriage.
Therefore, increasing incidents of FGM heavily correlates to reciprocal trends in child marriage. Once a girl is married off, she often loses her right to education. Given the economic uncertainty set off by the pandemic, this has been seen as a means to an end for many households.
“Families would be looking for a suitor for these girls because it’s one less mouth to feed and it’s also a way for income or assets to come to the [home]. But this also means there’s one girl less in school, one more child mother, and all the risks that come with it. The cycle of poverty continues with this single act.”
Other gender issues that have been prevalent during the pandemic have to do with domestic violence, job loss, forced sex work as well as declining access to maternal health facilities which has led to more fatalities.
To support women and girls, Abdulla’s organization has partnered with the European Union (EU) to provide vulnerable households, in informal settlements across Kenya, with cash transfers for several months so they can build resilience against Covid-19, along with a host of other interventions.
“We opted for cash because it gives [them] choices. It allows them the agency to make decisions on how to spend that money and provide for themselves within their preferences. We’re [also] working with the Ministry of Health to help build back confidence in the community that it’s safe for mothers and children to seek medical services,” she explains.
Back in Liberia, which has had a recent legacy of strong female leadership, young women like Kruah-Togba, have also stepped in to support those affected by prevailing Covid-19 policy mandates.
Suma Massaley and Benita Urey are two of them.
For 24-year-old Massaley, supporting the elderly was critical. With a bulk of Monrovia’s population living below the poverty line and a considerable majority dependent on the informal sector for an income, the elderly became a high-risk group not only in their susceptibility to Covid-19 but also due to the fact that they had no welfare state to rely on. Through social media, she managed to raise $12,885 to support them.
“I was concerned for elderly folks who are dependent on their children, [many of whom] lost their jobs because of the lockdown or whose businesses had to come to a halt. When we raised our first $2,000, I posted on social media asking Liberians to recommend communities that needed the most help. We are giving each household a bag of rice, a gallon of oil [and] a package of toiletries,” she says.
She says that mentorship from Liberian women in public service including Nobel Laureate and peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, who is credited for having a hand in ending the Civil War in 2003, was pivotal in her project.
“If I didn’t have strong women to look up to, I wouldn’t have dared to take on such a challenge. When I first thought of the idea, I called Leymah and told her [about it]. She was really supportive and mentored me through it all.”
Urey also took on an unexpected role in community leadership with her project ‘Package for Hope’, distributing food parcels to the country’s rural communities.
“Many Liberians live on the money they’ve made during the day, so [when] the State of Emergency was put in place, a majority of them found it extremely hard to make the income they were used to,” she explains.
Through online fundraisers, Urey was able to raise $1,000 and 20 bags of rice within an hour. Eventually, she managed to collect over $3,500 in donations. Living in Monrovia, she felt that the funds would be better served in remote communities, far from the capital. Urey, too, has been inspired by the women she has seen in political leadership and is now paying it forward.
“Although we had a female President for 12 years in Liberia, women joining politics is still something many Liberians don’t want to see. However, women continue to make a huge impact… I always like to take the path that best fits me and [this has led to other] promising young Liberian girls reaching out to me [asking me] to teach them,” she says.
From their example, we can conclude that, at least in Liberia, women have been at the forefront of national Covid-19 response albeit unofficially. However what about the women who are looking to make an impact in future crises?
“Although we had a female President for 12 years in Liberia, women joining politics is still something many Liberians don’t want to see.”
Oyindamola Adefisayo, from Nigeria, is a PhD candidate at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City.
She’s seen the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic in the American metropolis and has studied the country’s responses to it, but she has also had her eye on movements back home where she hopes to return after her studies.
However, she is realistic about her options.
“Outside of the few women who have been able to break through ranks and serve politically, I honestly do not see a clear career path for leadership roles in policy outside of taking the NGO route. While there are some astounding women working to make changes in science and public health in Africa, there are simply not enough who are visible to [those of] us who want to follow this career path,” she admits.
Taking the broader view, Sock, in Senegal, argues that while African women in leadership may not be visible, they are effective.
“Policy takes time and I find women are more patient. When the Ebola crisis was no longer an emergency, I saw more women stick with it, [even though] it was no longer in front of the cameras. Already with Covid-19, women [leaders] are engaging with scenarios post-crisis on how to continue strengthening emergency response systems, for example. Women have the ability to think more broadly for their communities. We need to see more of this not only in emergency responses but also in public health leadership,” she insists.
However, in Kenya, Ngong is more positive in her assessment.
“I really think the outlook is bright for women in leadership. I’ve had young women between the ages of 19 to 21 [recently] contact me on becoming their mentor. That, to me, is really inspiring. It could be due to Covid-19 that public health is [becoming] really popular. I think we’ll definitely be seeing shifts in the next five years because of this,” she predicts.
Nonetheless, Adefisayo feels more can be done for the young women looking to join and, hopefully, lead the sector.
“I am inspired by the number of women [that] I see making a great effort in changing the narrative around public health and science policy. However, this effort often seems stifled, more by the lack of interest and commitment to making the necessary changes by government.
“Creating visibility for women involved by building networks could be a feasible way of inspiring the next generation and teaching [them] the lessons [already] learned,” she argues.
While Covid-19 has reignited a silent debate on the role of African women in public health policy, its greatest lessons may lie in what is missing, insists Ngong.
“We have to have data systems! As we start talking about vaccine trials and preparedness for access, my biggest worry is what data we’re going to use in African countries. In terms of gender, we’ll need data to understand which groups we’re going to prioritize.”
As the debate blares on, the conclusion to be made is that women are the beating, but unsung, heart of the continent’s public health systems.
Ensuring that they are not only acknowledged but that their voices are heard during this pandemic, and in those to come, is a kindness long overdue.
– By Marie Shabaya