Photography Credit: SIHA Archives

SIHA Network is a regional network that works with urban poor women in shanty, peripheral settlements in addition to internally displaced, migrant women and girls across the greater Horn of Africa.

The latest global warnings and protection guidance regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) has 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. Specifically in Uganda, SIHA works with women market and street vendors who typically live and work in very precarious conditions within urban shanty settlements. These settlements are characterized by over-crowding and limited to no basic water and sanitation facilities.

Several studies that have been conducted indicate that over 80% of Uganda’s labor force is employed in the informal economy. In order to further set the tone, the women who are active in the informal economy are confronted with challenges of globalization with no social and economic safety nets. This translates into enormous pressure on the women as they are caught in a bind between patterns of extreme poverty and a faltering social welfare system.

Against this background, these women who are normally the heads of their household cannot consider self-quarantining as a viable option as it would directly endanger the survival of their families. Because these women’s earnings are insufficient to permit them to generate savings, any interruption to their daily income can be catastrophic. This would certainly be the case if their customers disappear due to self-quarantining. Statements like, “How will I feed my family today if I sit at home?” are the relevant questions that are circulating on the streets of Kampala and other urban areas.

We therefore call for special attention to be paid to women and girls active in the informal economy who live under very unfathomable circumstances which significantly compromise their access to soap, clean water, and the ability to implement safe social distancing. These populations have different needs in the face of the 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 make the following recommendations to specific stakeholders within the Ugandan context.

  1. Key ministries alongside regulatory bodies within the Government of Uganda namely: Ministry of Health, Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Ministry of Water and Environment, Ministry of Local Government, Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development and Ministry of Information and Communications Technology must develop and 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.
    1. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology through the Uganda Communications Commission must direct all media outlets to develop and tailor campaigns that are far-reaching and accessible to all society;
    2. District authorities and local councils must be engaged to develop information posters and flyers that can be shared in neighborhoods with the preventive measures written in the local languages;
  2. The Ministry of Water and Environment in collaboration with key development partners should fast-track the consideration and construction of safe water points within these shanty settlements where running water and soap are provided. Technically feasible piped water options within the peripheries of the urban areas should be considered too, most especially local markets and densely-populated areas.
  3. Comprehensive relief measures for food distribution should be developed with direct collaboration between the Office of the Prime Minister through the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees and international relief aid organizations as well as other development organizations with a similar mandate;
  4. The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives and the Ministry of Education and Sports should proactively engage the local artisan fraternity to skill the young people on locally manufacturing sanitizers and face masks for mass dissemination at multiple levels;
  5. The Ministry of Health should work with the City authorities to train and equip women street and market vendors as community health ambassadors to distribute hand sanitizers and health information.
  6. Most importantly, SIHA strongly recommends that the Government of Uganda immediately implements the conditional release of detained women, particularly pregnant women and women with children, who have not committed violent offenses, and 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.