ON LABOR DAY WE SAY: Although the majority of working women in the Greater Horn of Africa are poor, they are not without power

Governments must listen to women during this pandemic and support their economic recovery

On Labor Day 2020, SIHA draws attention to how much remains to be done in order to ensure just, equitable, healthy working conditions and social protections for women, whose labor continues to be under-appreciated and unrecognized throughout the region. The formal and informal sectors of labor in which women are the majority, are precisely the sectors which are economically and socially undervalued.

According to the ILO[1], the informal economy comprises more than 90% of total employment in all Greater Horn of Africa countries, with the exception of Sudan where it is estimated to between 50% and 74%[2]. Across the Greater Horn of Africa, most women laborers are represented in the informal labor and lower-level health services sectors. Both sectors are underpaid, and now with the COVID-19 outbreak, they are among the most at risk of infection. Despite the immense contributions women in these sectors make to healthcare on the one hand and the economy on the other, governments throughout the region have not lifted a finger to ensure that they can work safely and can access basic necessities in the case of temporary unemployment.

Women informal laborers are exposed to a myriad of risks and vulnerabilities – not limited to exploitation, income interruptions, sexual exploitation, harassment, and violence.[3] Women healthcare workers are often relegated to positions in which they have low wages, long working hours and high levels of interaction with patients. COVID-19 has revealed how utterly essential women in the healthcare sectors and in the informal economy are, and still our governments are content to place the greatest burdens of risk on their shoulders without increasing their pay or providing social protection and safety nets in the case of their unemployment or loss of business as a result of the government-imposed virus containment measures. According to the WHO 2020 State of the World’s Nursing, the average of current health expenditure as a percent of GDP across all 8 nations within the Horn of Africa stands at approximately 6%.[4]

The dire consequences of not having unemployment protection mechanisms to ensure people can access food, water, medical services, and at least a portion of their wages during periods of unemployment have been made brutally clear. These burdens weigh more heavily on the backs of women in the informal economy because they are already burdened by cultural and institutional systems which keep them from accumulating wealth and property and yet are disproportionately responsible for fulfilling the needs of children and family members.

Each new day of lockdown, the governments across the Greater Horn of Africa region are deepening pre-existing structural and systemic gender inequalities through their policies. Therefore, while today is a day of rest from employment for some, for others it is yet another day of working in precarious conditions without protections or safety nets, or worse still, another day facing hunger and extreme poverty with few alternatives for supplementing the lost income.

It is high time for our governments to do away with gender-blind policies that provide women with neither protection, nor equality, nor recognition for their essential contributions to the health and economic welfare of our region. SIHA strongly urges all the Greater Horn of Africa nations to ratify the ILO Convention 190 among other crucial regional and international human rights instruments. However, we must not stop there, as this is only one part of ensuring women access to safe, just, and equitable labor.

#makehervisible #ratifycedaw #ratifymaputo #ratifyILOC190

[1] ILO. Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture. 2018. https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_626831/lang–en/index.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Invisible Laborers of Kampala

[4] https://www.who.int/publications-detail/nursing-report-2020