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Multiple Jeopardies in a time of COVID-19: Being Woman, International, & Student

Gloria Paidamoyo Chikaonda

PhD candidate in Public Law University of Cape Town

Stanford University Knight Hennessy Scholar


As the world takes stock of the intersecting implications of COVID-19, attention has to be paid to the differential outcomes for students in institutions of higher education and professional schools. With more women attending law school, we need to consider the ways in which they will be uniquely affected by COVID-19 pandemic. Students with children will struggle to get through online curriculums. Already, research reflects that mothers in academia face multiple gender-based challenges and gaps, for instance, many women academics struggle to produce as much work as their male counterparts because of the disproportionate amount of care-work placed on them.

Graduate law students and legal researchers with children will probably face greater financial challenges and practical barriers that will impact their academic success. As the job market shrinks, foreign law graduates are also at risk of unemployment. With hiring discrimination persisting in the best of times, women and especially non-citizens, will suffer even more.

As many have pointed out, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the systemic fissures within African societies relating to the welfare of the most vulnerable. Women, children, the disabled and the poor are among those that are already showing signs of being hardest hit by the pandemic. Apart from the vulnerabilities faced by international students generally, African students living and studying abroad have to deal with peculiar challenges.

Many of us have had to weigh the decision between staying in our countries of study to weather this storm until it passes or to return to our homes to experience this unprecedented time with our loved ones, but at the unthinkable risk of exposing our families and communities to the disease, in places with weaker health systems and fewer medical facilities than where we are currently. Additionally, leaving puts us at the risk of being denied entry back into the countries of study for an indefinite period. Many of us, have opted to stay put.

In the United States, universities sent undergraduate students away from campus as early as the beginning of March, some with little more than a week’s notice. The universities decided that those measures were necessary and appropriate to prevent infections amongst the university community. However, the first concerns that came to my mind as an international student was, should they do that at my institution, where would I go?

African students require time to store away their belongings and find funds to travel home or to loved ones within the country. Once they are home or safely away from the university, they need to be housed in a place where they can continue to study, with minimal distractions, good internet connection and electricity to access online study materials. For those that decide to return to their home countries, many of these basic facilities would be inaccessible to them, added to the fact that they will be located in a different time zone, which means they would not easily be able to join online classes even if they had access to the things mentioned. For women, all these requirements stated above, come with a challenge as there are often expectations of women to contribute to the home, care giving and community activities.

Many African students survive college life and life abroad through university employment, therefore widespread cuts of teaching and research assistant opportunities and other campus jobs previously available to them are now cut off, leaving them with few sources of financial support. Foreign students are often ineligible for financial assistance provided due to their citizenship, they are ineligible too for emergency financial assistance packages being provided by governments to their citizens.

Even with all of this set out, foreign students in the United States are probably better off than those in other parts of the world. We need only look to the reports of racial discrimination against Africans in China to imagine the worst experiences of Africans studying abroad during this time. It is true that anyone who chooses to live or study in a foreign country bears reasonable risk for unforeseen incidents that may occur while they are there; it is for this reason that we are encouraged to travel with insurance. However, the realities of the political and economic landscapes of many African countries, combined with racial discrimination and unfriendly immigration policies African students are likely to experience the impact of this pandemic more acutely than foreign students from other parts of the world.

The intersectional nature of the issues arising from the pandemic also means that we have to look at the impact of the pandemic on African women studying abroad who may have extra layers of care duties, as well as other broader-based gender-related issues as emerging data from UN Population Fund (UNFPA) shows. The pandemic has exposed existing challenges, and unveiled new ones that lie at the intersection of citizenship, race, gender, class, geography and many others. Addressing the challenges of international students requires applying a gendered lens to understand the peculiar challenges female students will be facing during and after the pandemic.


Gloria Paidamoyo Chikaonda

Is a PhD candidate in Public Law University of Cape Town and a JSM candidate for Stanford International Legal Studies Program (SPILS) Fellow 2019/20, and a Stanford University Knight Hennessy Scholar.


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