The Judiciary and Gender Implications of COVID-19

*Fiona Atupele Mwale, LLM

Judge, High Court of Malawi

“Gender inequalities exacerbate outbreaks, and responses that do not incorporate gender analysis exacerbate inequalities.” (Smith 2019).

Although Malawi has not imposed a mandatory lockdown as of this writing, a number of institutions—government and non-governmental, have imposed a system in which staff members are rotating with many operating from home a number of days a week, an attempt to “slow down” the spread of infections as it were. From evidence across the globe in countries which have imposed lock down measures, domestic violence which for the most part is perpetrated against women by men, has risen exponentially. Women are now trapped at home with their abusers. Although I have not experienced in the courtroom any such cases, my experience on the UN Women Ending Violence Against Women Advisory Group for Eastern and Southern Africa (which engages stakeholders for strategy intervention on the region) has shown that even in this period where men are at home more, some instances of domestic violence have been reported to the police.

In Malawi, no research has been concluded yet, but it is projected that once the pandemic progresses and once a lock down is imposed, the numbers will rise. Hotlines are being set up for this purpose as are other response mechanisms, which once in place, could overwhelm the criminal justice and the courts should equally be ready to respond. Criminal matters are not the only ones in which women will be disproportionately affected. Considering that women work in predominantly different industries to men, the sector that has been most hit by job losses is the sector with high levels of women, often receiving less pay and benefits.

Domestic workers who commute, flight attendants, waitresses, flight attendants, hair-dressers, beauticians etc. are amongst those that are likely to suffer job losses and require court intervention to enforce their rights upon termination of employment where they were employed in the formal sector and their basic human rights for those in informal employment. Social Cash Transfer schemes are in operation for those who are unable to access their income in these times, however, unequal distribution in view of the large numbers of the women involved can be anticipated and these violations too shall require redress. The virus is not gender blind, the response to it should not be either. In my earlier