Zimbabwe: ‘Coronavirus will affect women and girls more than anyone’

Rebecca Kapaira, a mother from the Zimbabwean village of Shamva, tells Claire Nevill of her fears as her struggling country braces for the pandemic

Sunday 12 April 2020 13:24 BST
Rebecca’s maize crop is already struggling due to drought
Rebecca’s maize crop is already struggling due to drought (WFP/Claire Nevill)

Rebecca Kapaira, from the village of Shamva in Zimbabwe, is balancing home-schooling her five children with trying to work to put food on the table – a daunting task.

“Being a single mother, I have to work doubly hard, as the mother and the father,” she says. “I can’t buy the basics because the price it was yesterday is not the same as today. Our economy is so unstable it becomes difficult for us to survive.”

When I visit their home, Rebecca’s seven-year-old daughter, Kudzwai, reads to her mother in word-perfect English from a science textbook (her first language is Shona). It becomes clear that home-schooling is the least of Rebecca’s worries. What Rebecca fears most of all is not being able to put food on the table.

“The teachers told us we had to go home from school because of coronavirus,” says Kudzwai. “And they told us not to touch our eyes, nose or mouth.”

Rebecca is a farmer, and like most Zimbabweans, she depends on just one, increasingly unreliable rainy season each year. However, because of severe drought induced by climate change, of the last five growing seasons, only one has seen normal rainfall. Experts predict that the upcoming 2020 harvest will be even poorer than those preceding it.

Women are the ones who fetch water from unprotected wells, and it needs two to three people to pump it. We cannot do social distancing 

“For the past two years we haven’t harvested anything,” says Rebecca, standing in her garden of sun-scorched maize. “Our community hasn’t been able to predict the rainfall patterns. Our timing seems wrong every time and the crops never mature enough to make it to harvest. There is nowhere to get food. As the only breadwinner, I end up with nothing to give the children. I usually skip meals myself so they can eat.”

Life is becoming harder each day for Rebecca and her children. Hyperinflation has sent food prices soaring (in December, food inflation was at more than 700 per cent), dramatically eroding purchasing power. “The prices are always changing, and I cannot keep up with them,” she says.

This month, Rebecca is just one of the 4.1 million Zimbabweans experiencing “crisis” or “emergency” food insecurity that the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is planning to support. Insufficient funding has, however, prevented WFP from achieving this monthly target since the start of the year – in March, it reached only 3.7 million people. Zimbabwe has a population of 16.5 million.

Coronavirus: United Nations World Food Programme plans to support 4.1 million Zimbabweans

With hunger peaking, the looming Covid-19 pandemic threatens to exacerbate Zimbabwe’s dire economic and hunger crises. A recent WFP analysis on the impact of Covid-19 on food security estimates that the forthcoming agricultural season – so crucial for millions of Zimbabweans – may again be compromised, either by reduced agricultural labour because of the country’​s lockdown or because of lack of access to agricultural inputs due to supply-chain disruptions.

Rebecca fears that the spread of Covid-19 in Zimbabwe will bring an end to the food she is receiving from WFP. “If all borders are closed then food transportation to our communities will be affected as well. Lack of access to food means more hunger for our families here,” she says.

“At the end of the day, women and girls are at the receiving end of the coronavirus. It will affect us more than anyone else. Why? Because it’s us women who do the household chores all the time. We are the ones who fetch firewood for cooking from the bush. We are the ones who fetch water from unprotected wells, and it needs two to three people to pump it. We cannot do social distancing. We are the most at risk.”

Eddie Rowe, WFP’s country director and representative for Zimbabwe, is adamant that its operations must and will continue uninterrupted by the coronavirus. “WFP has a critical role to play by sustaining a scaled-up food assistance programme while supporting Zimbabwe’s response to the pandemic,” he says, “We must be able to deliver at full capacity.” WFP has negotiated with the government of South Africa to ensure its flow of food coming into Zimbabwe remains uninterrupted.

WFP is pre-positioning three-months’ worth of food through key supply corridors and securing financing to support cash transfers for the same period, including in urban areas.

At all food-distribution sites, like the one Rebecca is attending in Shamva today, WFP is rolling out new risk-control measures. These include increasing the number of distributions to limit overcrowding, monitoring social distancing, providing protective clothing for all partners and staff, offering handwashing facilities, and using a new device for scanning SCOPE cards – which allow people to access the programme – at a distance.

“Last month, before the pandemic hit, we would gather in large groups depending on how big your family is to collect and share out the food,” Rebecca explains. “We are now being supervised by health workers – they come and tell us how to sit practising social distancing and that we should not be close to each other.”

Back at home, Rebecca’s children gather round as she serves a porridge of maize meal by the fire. “As a mother I always want my kids to have the best life they can,” she says. “I want to see all five of them going to school with all the books, uniform and shoes. For now, our only hope is the food we are receiving.”

WFP is calling for an urgent investment of $130m (£103m) to fully implement its emergency operation throughout August, warning that otherwise, millions in Zimbabwe will be plunged deeper into hunger.

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