It has been 191 days since the COVID-19 outbreak last December. The pandemic is wreaking havoc in local economies here in Canada, but also in vulnerable communities around the world including in Eswatini, a small kingdom between South Africa and Mozambique.
With a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, 74% of Swazi people live on less than $2 a day. While the country counts 600 cases and mourns 6 deaths due to COVID-19, the impact on livelihoods has been devastating. The restrictions on movement designed to contain the pandemic mean a lot of community members in rural areas of Eswatini are unable to go to work and for artisan and small business owners, markets for their goods are disappearing.
“We’ve had 9,000 people laid off from their work in the country. And each of those people support, on average, 6 dependents. And that’s a massive blow,” says Julie Nixon, Executive Director of Gone Rural and SWIFT. “We also rely heavily on tourism. So, some of our greatest hotels are closed; they are just shut. Within our membership, everybody has retail outlets that are primarily targeted at tourists, and those all closed in March. So it looks like the small and medium enterprises in our country will lose 50% of their income in 2020.”
On June 23, 2020 Crossroads’ partners Julie Nixon, Executive Director of Gone Rural and SWIFT and Nozipho Sasha Thorne, Executive Director of BoMake sat down virtually with Crossroads Executive Director Heather Shapter to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls in Eswatini. The small African kingdom which was already facing challenges before the pandemic from unemployment rates to HIV infections, saw women who are often caregivers for their family and communities, hit hard by the restrictions.
Nozipho Sasha Thorne says rural women are among the most vulnerable.
“We have 782 women, of course, and 52% of those women are the sole income-earners in their homesteads. So, with the compromised income generation, that means they’re having so much difficulties to sustain their home life and their children.”
And she adds quarantine has resulted in increasing cases of domestic violence, as women were confined with their abusers: “There has been a conscious move to even introduce a toll-free line for women in rural communities to be able to get assistance, because they cannot move out of their communities so freely now to seek help,” says Thorne.
But Swazi women are resilient and found a silver lining. Some women weavers who were awarded the 2019 Karen Takacs Women’s Leadership Fund grant identified an opportunity early on and managed to retool to meet the increased demand for masks. “We are seeing a great display of resiliency and resourcefulness from our artisans,” says Thorne, “One of the groups that we have – that is being supported by Crossroads, they started off as a sewing group. Basically, they were making sanitary pads for the communities,” says Thorne. “We were able to capitalize on this opportunity to switch to making masks. And it’s been really, really fruitful because the women have had so much income, a steady flow of income from this initiative.”
Watch the full conversation below: