Photography Credit: SIHA Archives

SIHA Network is a regional network that operates among women in urban slum communities and IDP and migrant women and girls across the greater Horn of Africa.

The latest global warnings and protection guidance regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) have been, in our view, largely a conversation among the privileged. The risk mitigation afforded by these prevention measures leaves out those who do not have access or only have limited access to 1) information 2) sanitizers/disinfectants, and 3) soap and clean water. These global proclamations further show a callous indifference to the fact that much of the world’s population lives in a state of precarity which does not permit them to continue to access food and an income in the event of widespread public shutdown. Meaning that if complementary measures are not taken, the implementation of social distancing would destroy the livelihoods of urban slum communities across the Greater Horn of Africa region.

In light of the spread of coronavirus, we are very concerned about women street vendors, domestic workers, alcohol brewers and all other women in the highly diverse but often invisible informal economy across the region. SIHA works with hundreds of women and girls who are involved in group activities and whose livelihoods are inseparable from their presence among crowds and congested areas. If these women do not go to work or if their customers disappear due to self-quarantining, the survival of these women and their families will be at serious risk.

Special attention must also be paid to women and girls who are migrants, refugees, and prisoners as the circumstances in which they live often significantly compromise their access to soap, clean water, and the ability to implement safe social distancing. These populations, like the women living in urban slum communities and working in the informal labor sector, have different needs in the face of a coronavirus pandemic which must be understood and met by local, national, and international actors who all have a responsibility to contribute to the health and safety of these women.

Based on this, we would like to suggest the following steps to governments, the UN, WHO, WFP, IOM, UN Habitat and other international organizations, and multi-national corporations within The Greater Horn of Africa and the African continent:

  1. To immediately invest in public health education campaigns that are furnished with accurate and up-to-date information. These campaigns must target women in urban slum communities, and must tailor their prevention and protection guidance to what is feasible and available in the local context.
  2. To immediately invest in safe water points, where running water and soap are provided. These safe water and soap points must be made available in public spaces like local markets, public toilets, and in the peripheries of the big cities.
  3. To immediately implement plans to mitigate the lack of running water in many areas by establishing sanitation kit distribution points in key areas.
  4. To immediately invest in the local production of sanitizers and face masks in partnership with local pharmacists and health workers, including the dissemination of education on how to make these items at home along with distribution of the necessary materials.
  5. To immediately develop comprehensive relief measures for food distribution in the event of the food accessibility being restricted and/or informal laborers’ incomes being interrupted.
  6. To maximize the use of local-language radio and other local-level media that is most likely to be accessed by urban slum communities and is accommodating to limited literacy levels in order to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information.
  7. To immediately equip local governments so that they are able to fulfill their responsibilities to protect the health and safety of their communities.
  8. To immediately implement the conditional release of detained women, particularly pregnant women and women with children, who have not committed violent offenses, and to ensure that all detention, prison, and law enforcement facilities and offices make sanitizer and/or soap with water continuously available to all prisoners, personnel, and visitors.

Under no circumstances should urban poor communities be subject to further marginalization through measures which stigmatize and harm them, such as forced community-wide quarantines which cut people off from access to food, water, medicines and other basic necessities.