Uganda’s Coronavirus response measures do not take into account the specific needs of women. Confusion about lockdown laws, a lack of reliable transport, and the poor administration of travel permits has cost lives.
The unprecedented outbreak and spread of COVID-19 has shaken all walks of life. However, the financial and health crises caused by the pandemic mostly affect the already vulnerable. This is particularly true in Uganda, which did not escape the pandemic, although it was among the last African countries to confirm a case. Uganda’s experience with the virus began on 20 March, 2020, when a male returning from Dubai tested positive. Ever since then, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Minister of Health Jane Aceng have set out strict lockdown rules to contain the spread of the pandemic across the country.
Inasmuch as it’s difficult to anticipate the cost of the pandemic, it is hard to overlook the fact that the lockdown measures have already taken a toll on the economy whose citizens operate “hand-to-mouth” business ventures. The World Bank ranks Uganda as a lower-middle-income country and its citizens heavily rely on informal jobs for survival. In the effort to mitigate the crisis in the Kampala Metropolitan Area, the government allocated a surplus budget to the Ministry of Disaster and Preparedness under the Office of the Prime Minister, but instead the relief money was swindled. Thus, the lockdown measures risk eroding the trust of vulnerable populations when those in charge of the response are being arrested on charges of corruption. The government has also given the security sector a mandate to ensure people adhere to the lockdown regulations but the implementation of the directive is far more brutal towards the women. The implementation, therefore, raises the question: is Uganda’s government aware of the essential needs that will necessitate public access and movement for women?
Uganda’s security sector has so far implemented crackdown measures without considering women’s continued need to access maternal healthcare. The harsh implementation of lockdown measures has so far contributed to the deaths of seven pregnant women who died before they could reach the hospital to give birth. The lockdown has created confusion about who is permitted to travel on the roads, and the locally run (but poorly funded) ambulance services already had a limited number of vehicles and problems paying for fuel before the crisis. Those who made it to the hospital often walked for long distances in their fragile states, and an unspecified number of children have died due to difficulties in transporting them by foot whilst they were seriously unwell.
In Museveni’s speech on the lockdown guidelines, he stated that citizens are to only move during a medical emergency with approval from the resident district commissioners (RDCs). Unfortunately, each district has only one RDC, making it difficult for pregnant women to get travel clearance. Moreover, pregnant women don’t always know when they are going to go into labour. At the same time, the president issued a ban on both public transport and privately own vehicles on public roads, arguing that government vehicles would transport people to hospitals in case of emergency. However, the promise has not been realised due to the country’s poor infrastructure and a limited number of government vehicles servicing the remote areas.
Additionally, women in Uganda continue to be susceptible to domestic violence. Now, because of the lockdown measures, women are more likely to suffer abuse from their husbands. There are already reports of men taking out their frustration on partners due to the unfamiliar long hours they are spending at home. The economic uncertainty heightens the likelihood that men will “fail” to meet traditional expectations to put food on the table, fuelling intimate partner violence within Ugandan homes. The gender stereotypes are harmful not only to women but equally so to men, who in particular become easily frustrated because they are forced to stay at home rather than work. In the patriarchal societies like Uganda, “stay-at-home men” are labelled as lazy and a disgrace.
Even though the total lockdown measures have managed to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Uganda, it would be difficult to ignore that women and children will continue to die from neglected health-related conditions and suffer from hunger because they cannot fend for themselves, yet there is no government support allocated to the vulnerable people. Considering the uncertain duration to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and severity of the crackdown, the government also has a responsibility to mitigate the physical and economic harm that women and children will experience during the lockdown. They shouldn’t be saved from the virus only to die in childbirth, suffer hunger, or abuse.
To control the spread of COVID-19 without compromising the health and the general well-being of women in Uganda, the president and the health minister (who, as a woman, should best understand what fellow women go through when their specific needs are not met) must devise measures to protect and safeguard women’s specific needs – this is essential for both Ugandan and refugee women during this emergency. The Ugandan central government must include local councils and communities in the COVID-19 response. Two immediate gender-responsive measures that should be implemented during the lockdown: First, the decentralisation of travel powers to the local councils, which are most familiar and accessible to the local populations, especially expectant mothers. The local councils should also have the authority to designate labour as a medical emergency. The second rapid measure required is to communicate messages about the effects of domestic and intimate partner violence to men through local radios (still the most effective means of communication) and reframe masculinity during this crisis.
In order for Uganda to manage and contain the spread of COVID-19 without undermining the rights and freedoms of the citizens, the implementation of the lockdown guidelines should offer possibilities that support the livelihood and the well-being of the most vulnerable in the country.
Beatrice Alupo is a PhD candidate in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Her research focuses on acculturation and adaptation experiences of refugee women in Uganda.
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