Pandemics and subsequent lock downs are disproportionately disadvantageous for women around the globe. There is a need to situate women at the center of all prevention and relief efforts to ensure a gender-sensitive and effective response.
In Ghana, access to clean water remains an impending challenge, particularly for the economically vulnerable as the poorest people are over 20 times more likely to spend more than 30 minutes collecting water than wealthier people. Acquired mostly from open sources such as ponds, puddles, dams and rivers, the quality of this water remains below par and 76% of households are at a risk of drinking water contaminated with faecal matter.
The already strained access has been further compromised in light of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and existing inequalities have been deepened. In line with the rest of the developing world, women remain the default water fetchers in the Ghanaian social fabric. A study conducted across 44 developing nations revealed that Ghanaian women make up 64.4% of water carriers in the country. Naturally, this means women are also at a greater risk of contracting the virus due to greater exposure and their inability to practice social distancing.
This is compounded by economic and social vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic. Studies show that the economic setback caused by lock down during pandemics is greater for women as they mainly engage in informal labor and depend on public spaces and social interactions. In addition, out-of-school children and unemployed male wage earners are bound to add to the care-giving burden shouldered by women and girls. Physical isolation also increases the risk of domestic abuse and violence tenfold.
What does this mean for our response to COVID-19? It means that women’s distinct experiences must be addressed and placed at the center of all prevention and relief efforts. There is increasing evidence that suggests that policies that do not consult women or include them in decision-making are simply less effective, and can even do harm. On the contrary, women’s involvement in water projects, community hygiene and WASH trainings have proven to render these projects 6 to 7 times more effective.
We have rolled out an ongoing soap distribution and handwashing campaign across Maji communities in rural Ghana and reached more than 10,000 people with handwashing facility, training and a bar of soap. Keeping in mind the greater exposure and vulnerability of Ghanaian women to the virus as well as the overall benefits of female participation to our campaign, our field teams encourage participation of female family members from each household.
More importantly, particularly for soap distribution, community women have been targeted as they are more likely to encourage their families to wash their hands properly with soap than their male counterparts.
As we respond to the current emergency, we cannot neglect the gendered differences in individuals’ experiences. COVID-19 reminds us that addressing gender inequality in prevention efforts is both women’s right and an investment in future resilience. More importantly, women’s inclusion warrants greater impact.