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  • Cynthia Musah

Women Rise - Journeying Through Crisis

“Women can do what society thinks they cannot.”

My name is Cynthia Itbo Musah, a PhD student in Geography at the University of Waterloo. My research focuses on understanding the links between gender, work, and women's health in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where women often engage in unpaid household work such as WASH management and caregiving. In my current project, I am exploring how work—both paid and unpaid—affects women's health and overall wellbeing throughout their lives, and seeking to identify what women need to recover from the effects of COVID-19 and prepare for other future health emergencies.

Cynthia (Right) and Bernard (Middle) Talking to a Respondent (Left)
Cynthia and Bernard

Over the past four months, I have been canvassing the streets of Mukono and Kisumu in Uganda and Kenya, respectively, interacting with women about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. What struck me has been their incredible resilience in the face of profound challenges.

For many, the pandemic exacerbated existing barriers like limited access to water, healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. Many women have always been homemakers in sub-Saharan Africa, but since COVID-19 struck, they spent more hours trying to care for sick relatives and provide water and food for their visibly larger household sizes due to members returning home from their workplaces during the lockdowns.

This meant limited time to engage in their varied trading activities, which also became less viable during the lockdowns. They were also exposed to coronavirus infections at crowded water collection points. In a few cases, domestic violence increased due to more contact time with partners at home and the increased financial pressure.

But women in these communities are manoeuvring the crises well, and, sometimes, in very good spirits. They explain how the COVID-19 pandemic was not the first disaster to affect them. They have suffered cholera, flooding, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These experiences paradoxically toughened women and prepared them to navigate the COVID-19 virus.

“If we don’t do something about it, we will be asking the same question about women 10, 20, or 50 years from now.”

Unfortunately, women can only do so much within the context of socio-cultural norms and socio-economic barriers tilted against them. What I found most enlightening were the systemic issues they identified as truly holding them back – not individual shortcomings but entrenched social and economic barriers. Most older women lacked schooling due to historical gender disparities. Others cited limited pathways to leadership roles. Unfortunately, the younger women are not doing any better.

I encountered several examples of girls who became pregnant and dropped out of school during the lockdowns. As one woman told me, “If we don’t do something about it [the situation on teenage pregnancy], we will be asking the same question about women [how can women be empowered?] 10, 20, or 50 years from now.”

A common hope was that future generations of girls might access opportunities, like the university education attained by one of the recently elected female members of parliament in the Kisumu. However, transforming gender norms requires tackling unequal power structures at their root. ‘We can do same [as their MP] if we were educated’ was one of the statements that stayed with me.

Cynthia (left) with Edna (Right)
Cynthia and Edna

As I draw closer to the end of my visit, and now reflecting on my observations thus far, two conclusions are apparent;

First, “Women can do what society thinks they cannot,” to quote the words of two of my participants. Women have demonstrated resilience and courage through the pandemic and are even taking up more responsibility for the socio-economic welfare of their households than ever before. Given the right supports, the future of women in sub-Saharan Africa looks bright.

Secondlye all have a role to play – researchers, civil society, and governments. I have been inspired by the work of Cohesu in Kenya and ROTOM in Uganda, our project partners. In my sojourn here, I have heard and witnessed the incredible impact they are making in the lives of women, girls, and children.

Witnessing how findings from past research partnerships, led by Professor Susan Elliott, my supervisor, are yielding results on the ground, gives me hope that with strategic partnerships between researchers, policymakers, and NGOs, we can transform socio-cultural and socio-economic barriers affecting women in Africa.

Thank you, Women Rise, Cohesu, ROTOM, and the University of Waterloo, for supporting me on this journey. 

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