Lockdown exposes gender disparities in our country

Covid-19 pandemic will hit girls and women the hardest, not only in SA but around the world. /Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images
Covid-19 pandemic will hit girls and women the hardest, not only in SA but around the world. /Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images

I have found myself recapitulating powerful words by the former president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, when she said: "The seeds of success in every nation on earth are best planted in women and children."

Here, my contention is that the Covid-19 lockdown in SA and around the world has been hitting girls the hardest.

I believe a sound education that is responsive to the economic needs globally is a solid foundation for any child. However, I have observed that the Covid-19 lockdown in SA is exposing gender disparities in our society, where circumstances force the girl child to step in as a parent to her younger siblings in their home.

The Covid-19 provides a platform to address the issue of child-headed homes and how girls are burdened with responsibilities that are cheating them of their childhood.

As children grow they look up to their parents and guardians for support and they feel relieved knowing that they are not alone. However, this is not the case in the stories of child-headed families, where a child is taking care of their other siblings. This is despite the need to be guided by their parents instead of taking up that role themselves. Children should be focusing on receiving education so as to equip them with skills and knowledge for their future.

I am focusing on girls because there is widespread concern that the numbers of children living in child-headed households are rapidly increasing and these households are mostly managed by young girls.

This atrocity has become evidently magnified during the period of executing some of the novel coronavirus programmes introduced by the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) which I am involved in.

As a councillor in the CoJ, I have been on the ground as we continue with community visits to create awareness about Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown has been both a challenging and financially strenuous period.

It is for this reason that in partnership with NGOs and businesses, as councillors of CoJ we donate food parcels to the marginalised areas that we visit so that we provide relief to some of the families.

During these visits, I have been exposed to several child-headed households led by girls. It is this experience that made me realise that Covid-19 will hit girls and women the hardest, not only in SA but around the world.

What is devastating is to learn that according to a research titled, "Analysing the nature and extent of child-headed households in South Africa", compiled by Children's Institute, 92.1% of children in child-only households have a living parent.

According to an analysis of national household surveys to examine circumstances of children in child-headed households in SA, most children in child-only households are not orphans and 84% have a living mother.

But how can we individually assist child-headed households during the Covid-19 lockdown? The early childhood period is considered to be the most important developmental phase throughout a lifespan. Healthy early childhood development (ECD) includes the physical, social, emotional and language/ cognitive domains of development, well-being, stunting, mental health, heart disease, competence and economic participation throughout life.

While I believe that we can all contribute in helping child-headed households navigate this period of Covid-19, we must acknowledge that some parents overlook the fact that what happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child's developmental trajectory and life course. While education is essential, the role of the parent is crucial.

I am therefore, inquisitive about how we can prioritise education and empowerment of young girls to curb the potential of increased drop-out rates which will disproportionately affect girls.

This will further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early forced marriage.

The lockdown has increased the girl child's vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men as girls are often at home alone supervising their younger siblings.

It is our duty as a collective to ensure that kids from child-headed households are protected in our communities and granted the little support they need to survive.

*Masuku is MMC for group corporate and shared services in the City of Johannesburg

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