How are women, in particular disabled women, affected by COVID-19 in informal settlements in the global South? Although there is a range of information emerging (in addition to what we can extrapolate from previous health crises), in reality, it is difficult to know, at this stage, the extent to which women are being affected. This is because the crisis is still unfolding (and thus any explanations fall short), and because options for generating data that can give us an accurate sense remain limited. While quantitative gender data sets – collected by governments and collated by international organisations (for example, gender data trackers by Global Health and UN Women-WHO) – are emerging, they largely depict the effects of the pandemic in the global North. The UK Office for National Statistics data on how men and women spend their time in the lockdown is one such example. Much less has been documented about the lived experiences of women, particularly disabled women, in informal settlements in the global South.
In this piece, I present some of the information available about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender, disability and informal settlements, taking on mostly an additive approach, as more information and critical analysis is needed to understand the intersectional impact of the pandemic.[i] In addition, I share information from ongoing online conversations with community leaders, grassroots organisations and NGOs working in Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Banjarmasin (Indonesia) and Valparaiso (Chile). I do so to centre the lived experiences of these communities towards gaining an in-depth insight into the contextual specificities of the gender data gathered so far. The partnerships with grassroot organisations are part of the research project “AT2030: Community-led solutions in informal settlements” by The Global Disability Innovation Hub and led by The Bartlett Development Planning Unit at University College London (DPU-UCL) and previous research on gender inequalities in housing struggles in Chile, also as part of DPU-UCL.
International and grassroots organisations alike (UN Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women & UN Policy Brief a Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19; We Are Plan C) have identified the gendered impact of the pandemic such as intensification of reproductive work for women (and girls), precarity of jobs, and increase in gender-based violence worldwide, especially against disabled women and girls. Additionally, the physical and social conditions of living in informal settlements add further precarity in the lives of low-income residents, as international housing alliances are highlighting (Habitat International Coalition; Asian Coalition for Housing Rights; Slum Dwellers International). Emerging research shows ‘(…) a combination of population density and inadequate access to water and sanitation, (…) makes standard advice about social distancing and washing hands implausible [in informal settlements] (Wilkinson, 2020; p.1), posing specific risks for female dwellers, in particular those who are disabled. Disabled women could be ‘(…) left without vital support and advocacy due to the effects of COVID-19, with their rights denied, and them being put at risk of being the hardest hit by this crisis.’
From previous health crises, we know that informal settlements tend to be gravely affected and that global health policies have been slow at recognising the gender and disability dimensions of health emergencies. Evidence from the West African Ebola outbreak (2014-2016) shows that women (and gender more broadly) remain largely invisible at every point of the international health response (Smith, 2019). Disabled people in particular, faced lack of access to food and health services, increased discrimination and lack of information about the epidemic.
In the last few months at DPU-UCL, we have been attending to the ways in which dwellers of informal settlements are being affected by the pandemic. This emerges from a relationship of care and mutual concern for the well-being of communities where we have conducted research in the past (Valparaíso) or are currently doing so (Freetown, Banjarmasin). We have been working with the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP), Sierra Leone Research Centre, the Indonesian NGOs Kota Kita and Kaki Kota to understand the lived experiences of disability in informal settlements.
This piece has focused specifically on the effects of COVID-19 on female and disabled residents of informal settlements. It has attempted to briefly highlight data available on gender and disability, taking into consideration that the pandemic is still unfolding and that there is limited research on the ground. It highlights the importance of disaggregating data by gender and sex, age, disability and race, with the aim of making visible the structural inequalities faced by specific groups. It has also offered information emerging from online conversations with communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia on the pressing issues faced by dwellers, along with specific initiatives and the ways in which communities are addressing these issues.
The cases have highlighted women’s roles as carers of children, older people and increasingly, of the ill, in setting up community kitchens, managing scarce water resources, with less access to income and vulnerability to gender-based violence, especially if they are disabled. While it is clear that women are more vulnerable during COVID-19, they are also key actors in managing the crisis in informal settlements. If we are to learn from previous health crises, the knowledge and experience of women and disabled women needs to be put at the centre of international and national health responses.
Originally published on London School of Economics’ Engenderings website (29th June, 2020).
Image credit: author, Dworzark informal settlement, Freetown, Sierra Leone.