What the pandemic reveals about women’s activism and feminism

Nelly Nyagah

What the pandemic reveals about women’s activism and feminism

lorraine ndlovu_women's activism and feminism

We asked women leaders what the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have meant for their activism. Here’s the take by Lorraine Ndlovu, president of Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations and StreetNet International.

How is ZCIEA supporting its members to deal with the impact of the pandemic? 


The members of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) include street and market vendors, construction workers, waste pickers and other workers in the informal economy. Our approach involves organising, educating, advocating, empowering and representing our members in both rural and urban areas.

When the covid-19 pandemic struck we didn’t carry on working as usual. People were worried about their safety, the safety of their families and what the future holds post-covid-19. The members of ZCIEA work in public spaces that were shut down during the lockdown. But we found ways to keep connected. Most people seemed shocked, immobilised, and desperate. The avalanche of messages that I received had a common thread; “President, we have nothing. Our children haven’t eaten. What shall we do? What will ZCIEA do?”. While the ZCIEA doesn’t have a kitty for emergencies like the coronavirus, we couldn’t simply ignore the appeals from our members. We consulted our partners and adjusted the existing programs to assist our members. We set up a small relief fund and disbursed the money via cell phones to about 1890 members in 42 areas so far. ZCIEA’s ongoing support work is assisting our members to afford a bag of mealie meal at least. Women became more innovative and began working from home. We distributed personal protective equipment and shared information on the safety precautions to take within their homes. We also encouraged members to share the information widely. We are doing this work against the backdrop of the negative attitudes evident among citizens about the government’s ability to deliver the promised covid-19 response aid. Globally, informal sector workers are some of the most affected by the pandemicWe are looking for additional resources to continue supporting our members during and after the pandemic.

Has the pandemic increased the burden of care for women? 


Like in every crisis, women have taken up different roles during the covid-19 pandemic. Women were already doing most of the invisible and unpaid care work before the pandemic. The subsequent lockdown response worsened the situation for many women who also lost their jobs and incomes. Women in our communities become the psychologists, doctors, nurses, nutritionists and the providers of a myriad of other services. The inadequate service delivery in the country added to the care burden. For example, women have taken the responsibility to find clean and safe water to use, yet access to water is a basic right. Women are responsible for nutrition and preparing immune-boosting home remedies to keep their families healthy. The women in ZCIEA are sharing these experiences using the various established networks.

What does transformative feminist leadership mean for you in the context of the covid-19 pandemic?


Transformative feminist leadership is reflective and seeks at all times to understand the context. The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the care economy is a stark reminder that many women are still excluded in leadership, decision-making and national activism. Women are routinely not invited to participate in important discussions because it’s assumed that we are ‘busy’ and unavailable. The move to online communications platforms is highlighting the issue of exclusion and the tendency to hijack women’s issues by some men purporting to speak on behalf of women. In face to face meetings, we can look men in their eyes and shame them into adopting the appropriate postures. But this strategy may not work for online meetings.

There are many gender-sensitive men in society. These men participate in the care work and help to alleviate suffering during a crisis. However, there’s an assumption that they will also represent women’s issues and speak on our behalf. I have seen a lot of representation of women’s issues in male-dominated spaces, both offline and online. I think it’s an affront to women, and I would rather not participate in such spaces. As women and feminists, we should demand proper gender representation on the various platforms and particularly those dealing with women’s issues.

Has the pandemic stimulated thinking on alternative models of leadership that aren’t militaristic or patriarchal?  


The pandemic is highlighting the resilience of women and their knack for planning, implementing and making an impact. Yet, many of us aren’t claiming our successes. We have been socialised to think if you talk about yourself ‘you are beating your own drum’. It’s a patriarchal approach to pacify women, to stop women from claiming their achievements and highlighting their successes. My contention is that I can beat my own drum because I know the rhythm I want to dance to. So I began to write about myself to claim and share my successes, and to document my work for evidence. Women need to start talking about their successes more and document their work. Social media platforms can be powerful tools for communicating, documenting and sharing our work. When a fellow sister makes a presentation, take a picture of her and write something small to post on Facebook or Twitter. This is documentation and evidence of the impact of our work on the people we serve.

We need more women in leadership positions. This would require more support and investment in advocacy and education programs for nurturing a pipeline of strong women leaders. In the absence of a formal education foundation, women can be supported to learn from each other and become effective leaders. Our voices and opinions will continue to be heard in the right spaces – spaces that will be devoid of the keepers of the status quo.

Going forward we need an alternative model of leadership. We must dismiss the ‘pull-down syndrome’ label and remain defiant in our support of each other. I have learned that to be an effective leader I need to first claim my space and assert myself, recognising that I can have great ideas that should be valued and not dismissed. We have an uphill task of organising women and creating safe spaces to discuss things that directly affect us. Spaces for building transformative and feminist leadership are more important than ever. The new model of women’s leadership that we seek will have strong support, capacity and solidarity.

Rutgers and LRS partnership exploring the COVID 19 Pandemic on women’s leadership in the labour movement

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