Ugandan Women pushed deeper into Poverty due to COVID-19 measures

By Gladys Kigozi

With just a week into the second total lockdown, many businesses across the country have not been left the same. Unlike last year where the first lockdown was announced and people still had money to prepare for tough times ahead, this particular one found when most businesses were just picking up from last year’s losses. As a result, many business people are struggling to keep afloat, women inclusive.

Agnes Nabukenya, a single mother of three and retail shop owner in Kitooro Central Market, Entebbe Town, says with the second lockdown, her business is on the verge of collapsing.

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“On a good day, I would make at least one million shillings in a day. As I speak now, I hardly make 10 percent of that amount. Things started going downwards when the first lockdown was announced last year. As this year started, I thought my business was going to pick up and make money again but all that hope has gone to waste with this second lockdown. I am stuck,” she says.

As a way of survival, Nabukenya has now stocked more of COVID-19 necessities such as hand sanitizers, masks and food stuff, among others. She thinks government needs to intervene by offering financial assistance to them to revive their businesses.

Nalongo Madina, another businesswoman selling matooke in Abaita Ababiri Market, Entebbe Town, says her story is not different from that of other business people who have been hit hard by the pandemic. She says her husband is a taxi driver whose work was banned during the lockdown and that she is now the breadwinner for her family yet she no longer makes that much money to foot the bills.

Market Stall

“I used to sell a minimum of 10 batches of matooke in a day. Currently, I sell like one or two batches and some days none. Since people are not sure how long this second lockdown will last, I guess they are spending sparing. Instead of spending on a batch of matooke that a family can eat in a day, they would rather spend that money on maize floor that can last them more days,” she notes.

Unlike Nabukenya who found a way of surviving through the pandemic by concentrating on other much needed items, Nalongo has no way out.

“I have been selling matooke for over 20 years now. It is the only business I know. What do you expect me to do? All I can say is that government should lift the lockdown and teach the public how to live with the pandemic so that we survive,” she notes.

Nabukenya and Madina’s stories represent millions of women across the country. Among the Covid-19 management measures taken by the government is the closing of all workspaces including shopping malls, shops, hair salons and other smaller businesses with the exception of food selling stores and markets. This has specific gendered connotations with negative effects on women’s economic welfare resulting from the removal of means of survival for these daily wage earners.

Market Stall

Additionally, women in agriculture have also been hit by the pandemic. Prices of staple and other foods have gone down tremendously during this time according to Farm Grain Africa report of May 2020. This is bad news for women who make up more than half of Uganda’s agricultural workforce, which is 76 percent, according to Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Fruit and food vendors are another category of workers in this sector. This form of trade, mostly done by women, comes with demands on mobility. Restrictions of movement of persons and confinement in homes during the lockdown adversely affect these women’s incomes since sales were low.

Just like it was widely reported on 24 March 2020 where three female vendors were seen being flogged by security officers on Kampala streets, such incidents have also not stopped. Most female vendors were last week seen being chased from the streets where they had gone with hope of getting their daily wages.

A 2020 report released by Akina Mama Wa Africa, a regional women rights organisation, indicates that informal employment normally covers situations where there are neither legal and regulatory frameworks, nor applicable labour standards, and thus no obligations to be filled or rights to be respected or demanded.

“In general, work in the informal economy is far less secure and more poorly paid than work in the formal economy, and the influence of the state and formal labour market institutions is often weak. It also lacks coverage of social protection mechanisms. The consequence for women is less pay and decent work deficits,” it notes.

From another angle, the Covid-19 prevention measures by the government of Uganda allow some categories of women in the food business to continue working and thereby earn a livelihood. However, such a measure continues with a lot of difficulty for many, considering that business is generally low and most of these women rely on public transport to get to and from work, an almost impossible task at this time when movement of vehicles is restricted. In mitigation of this hurdle, and as a means to limit unnecessary movement and transmission of the virus, the government now requires these women sleep in their places of work.

“This, however, comes with challenges in regard to safety and hygiene, as well as a further burden for breastfeeding women or those with very young children who have to carry the children along with them,” Ms Modesta Tezikyabiri, the Entebbe Municipal Council Speaker, notes.

This also contradicts international labour standards such as Article 3 of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on maternity and work. The law mandates states to adopt appropriate measures to ensure that pregnant or breastfeeding women are not obliged to perform work prejudicial to the health of the mother or the child. Without proper sanitation and sleeping arrangements, it is clear that the government directive for women in markets to sleep at their workplaces is ignorant of the law. Regrettably, this treaty has not been ratified by Uganda. Furthermore, the requirement for women to work as well as sleep at their work stations in markets also raises contentions of decent work, which is a fundamental objective of all the ILO’s work.

“Decent work is built on respect for fundamental principles and rights at work,” Mr Guy Ryder, the ILO Director General reiterated on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2006.

With this in mind, the requirement by the government for women to work and sleep at their work stations in markets in conditions less than appropriate for human dignity and security come very close to contravening this international work standard. As of 25 July 2021, government had launched the mosquito nets distribution project to market vendors to fight malaria.

“I believe our mothers who are sleeping in the markets will not suffer from malaria. Our people are going through a hard time and are struggling to provide the food stuffs to our people. That’s why the President directed that we give them bed nets,” Ms Robinah Nabbanja, the Prime Minister, says.

Government has also proposed to send money tokens to vulnerable people, mostly women, to survive through the pandemic. However, these interventions by government are not enough to accord decent work or life. In the present circumstances, it is expected that both women in the formal and informal sectors will be pushed deeper into poverty. Therefore, in the absence of mitigation in the form of gender informed strategies, women are likely to face heightened tensions, financial uncertainties, vulnerability to poverty and other pressures which may intensify their vulnerabilities to aspects such as sexual exploitation as a means for survival.

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