Locking Down Women’s Rights Through COVID-19 Response Measures in Lesotho’s Informal Sector

*By Thabang Ramakhula The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a human tragedy, affecting hundreds of thousands of people globally. We are all either infected or affected. As part of comprehensive measures to contain and mitigate the spread of the pandemic, countries are adopting stringent measures including locking down entire countries or cities. These measures have a great impact on human rights and basic civil liberties, but women are projected to face the brunt of these measures disproportionately. Following other countries in Southern Africa and elsewhere, and as part of the national efforts to curb the spread of the virus, Lesotho declared a national lockdown from 29th March to 21st April 2020. The lockdown has almost completely limited the movement of citizens and operation of most enterprises, both large and small, formal and informal as long as such do not provide what have been deemed “essential services”. Lesotho’s Public Health (COVID-19) Regulations provide a list of services and enterprises which have been deemed essential during the lockdown. The majority of informal enterprises whose operations have been restricted include those largely owned and operated by women. With women being in the majority in these informal enterprises, the lockdown has a gendered impact. The gender-neutral approach adopted by the government also aggravates the existing vulnerabilities of women in the country. Women are already victims of intersecting oppressions through gender and income inequality, low political representation, and poor access to education and healthcare. This places them at the centre to be hit the earliest and hardest by the lockdown and its effects. The importance of protecting women from infection and possible death is unquestionable, but measures taken should include social and fiscal interventions aimed at mitigating the impact that the lockdown would have on women’s lives and livelihoods. The absence of such measures threatens to heighten Basotho women’s already high unemployment, economic insecurity and inequality crisis. These are detrimental not only to the informal workers themselves and their families but also pose the threat of collapsing the aggregate demand of the economy. As a matter of urgency, the government of Lesotho must roll out social and fiscal measures to ensure women in informal enterprises are protected and still retain their cash flow. These measures should target both the lockdown period as well as the post-COVID-19 recovery period. This may be achieved through revising the current lockdown to a partial one that allows women to continue working while strictly adhering to stipulated protective measures. Provision for free water and electricity for informal workers and their families should also be considered as countries such as Ghana and South Africa are undertaking. To ensure none in the severely affected informal sector face starvation or eviction from their homes, the government should also create a “rescue fund” or stimulus package to meet citizens’ needs in the informal sector. COVID-19 poses a threat to the world at large and governments bear the weight of protecting all their citizens from this pandemic. In so doing, existing inequalities in society places many vulnerable groups such as women in the informal sector at greater disadvantages and risk. Measures to address the gendered effects of the pandemic should not be ignored or viewed through rose coloured glasses. Realities of vulnerable groups in society, such as women, should be recognized and addressed accordingly— it is only then that governments can truly say they have protected all their citizens. *Thabang Ramakhula is an LL.D Candidate, Free State Centre for Human Rights, University of the Free State. The views expressed in this entry belong solely to the author.

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