In this second webinar of the series organised by global unions advocating for a gender equal new normal, and focusing on gender-based violence, Irene Khumalo, PSI's World Women's Committee (WOC) Chair, talks about the reality of being a woman frontline worker in times of crisis - women make up 70% of the global health workforce.
While violence and harassment are a daily reality for women healthcare workers, under a pandemic, these issues are exacerbated.
Irene Khumalo, a nurse from Eswatini opens her talk reminding us of the difficult reality of being a frontline worker in a time of crisis. “I am caught in between the pandemic and the right to protection. In between, where you have to still exercise the nursing practice while at the same time making sure that my rights as a health worker are not infringed”. For this reason, PSI rightly launched its “Safe Workers, Save Lives” campaign.
For women workers, ensuring their rights are not infringed is a constant challenge.. Khumalo says that while violence and harassment are a daily reality for women healthcare workers, under a pandemic, these issues are exacerbated.
Lack of Personal Protective Equipment
The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a major concern for nurses globally and has a gendered impact. Comrade Khumalo cited examples of the United Kingdom where three nurses caught COVID-19 after being made to wear garbage bags as PPE.
She also spoke about the division among workers who are caught between those who work without PPE and those who work with PPE. Those nurses who work without PPE are harassed. Community Health workers who do contact tracing – the majority of whom are informal women workers - do not have access to PPE. And in some instances, workers have reported being asked for sexual favours in return for PPEs.
“In my facility, we had to remove ourselves from the workplace, stopping work all together because there was no PPE. And as such we had problems with the administration as to why we are seated when we are supposed to work. And yet there is no protective clothing… When we have a mask on, [they] describe it as protective clothing and [say] it is fine, you can go see patients.”
“Communities stigmatize healthcare workers [fearing] that they are carriers of the virus… Health workers experience cyber-attacks [and] attacks from relatives because of misinformation.”
Non-conducive working environments is a concern - Khumalo spoke about women workers in China who were made to wear diapers and asked to take hormonal contraceptives to delay their menstrual cycle so that more time is given to the patients in their care.
Stigma has been a major issue for health workers, even from their family and community. “We feel isolated, that now we are detached from the family setting.” This is true for communities too. “Communities stigmatize healthcare workers [fearing] that they are carriers of the virus… Health workers experience cyber-attacks [and] attacks from relatives because of misinformation.”
As governments around the world implement lockdown measure, the process to deal with gender-based violence (GBV) is delayed. Lockdown has meant that many women, including health workers, are confined with their abusers. Most judicial services are suspended which impedes immediate judicial protection.
Khumalo cited the example of public service workers - women workers - who are saving lives in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador which has 68% of the national COVID-19 cases. There, the judiciary system never stopped under lockdown. PSI affiliates whose membership deal with violence against women and families - most of them women judges and secretaries - had to improvise their work to respond to the rise in GBV and not leave victims on their own.
Khumalo called for gender-responsive public services. She described how women are unable to leave their homes to report abusive partners, and how in some countries, codes had to be developed to enable women to report abuse. Irene stressed that women face a lot of emotional abuse, and that this has led to increased fear, anxiety, and depression.
Khumalo spoke about the informal economy where women make up a disproportionate percentage of informal economy workers. She mentioned how in Swaziland “police are demolishing the structures where the women informal workers keep their wares, [saying] that everyone must stay at home. So, the question is who will take care of the family when the woman is the breadwinner?”
She goes on to highlight the frustration of women, who do all the care work, and the added stress of doing such work in an environment where male breadwinners have their salaries cut or are laid-off. She points out that informal workers “are supposed to be protected and be in a safe environment” and she mentioned the importance of the inclusion of women workers in ILO’s Convention 190 on ending violence and harassment in the world of work. She hopes that the ratification of the convention by countries will see employers implement policies and programmes that are gender-responsive in addressing violence and harassment.
In closing, Comrade Khumalo urged unions, that even in the midst of a crisis,
It is important that we guard against gender-based violence and fight for sexual reproductive health rights. As unions we should fight for fair compensation for frontline workers and fight for safe working conditions in line with Occupation Health and Safety [Laws]
This second webinar of the series organised by global unions advocating for a gender equal new normal, brings together women trade union leaders and activists to expose the injustices and abuses facing female workers during the COVID pandemic.