• Feminist Humanitarian Net

Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report from South Africa

Women and their organisations around the world report on COVID-19

Anusanthee Pillay is one of the founding members of COFEM, the Coalition of Feminist for Social Change, an advocacy collective that brings together women leaders, activists, practitioners and academics to end violence against women and girls. Anusanthee has been a senior gender advisor for UN Humanitarian operations and is currently on many gender advisor emergency roster lists. Anu is an individual member of the Feminist Humanitarian Network, and COFEM’s representative.

Anu reports from Johannesburg, where she is working from home.

In South Africa, cases are up to over 3000 people affected, and we have seen 58 deaths. The government has responded very quickly, isolating people with symptoms who have returned from Europe, mostly from Italy or the UK. They have done a good job. One of the things the government has said is no cigarettes or alcohol, we will see what effect that has soon. However, I think that the biggest challenge facing South Africa now will lie with the people themselves. The people don’t understand that this is something that can spread in a way we cannot easily contain.

Anu Pillay

It is difficult to reach the public, to do so requires going to places and speaking to people directly. Perhaps some kind of community awareness program is needed. It should be done in the same way as in the past. We’ve seen cars driving around with speakers mounted on them giving out messages directly to the community. There are so many ways to reach people, even using the radio now. People need more basic information on this.

Of course the anecdotal evidence is out there now on the effects of people not being allowed to go outside. Men are no longer going out to work, they are staying at home and are much more likely to get frustrated. There is little hard evidence at this point of the effects this could have and it might be something that we will only really start to know about afterwards.

There will be gendered impacts of COVID-19, but in South Africa it is difficult to say what they will be. From my experience as a practitioner on gender-based violence, we all know that there will be an increase and the likelihood that domestic violence will increase is very high. We don’t have to wait for that to happen to know that it will because of all of the frustration. All of the causes of violence that we know as women on the frontline in the fight against gender-based violence have now been exacerbated by COVID-19, like in any crisis. We are expecting the same behaviour now that people will be stuck at home. Men can’t go out to work, women can’t go out to work either, children will be at home, frustration levels will rise.

COVID-19 could be a problem for feminism, it will have a big impact on women as carers, but this is all of the same things that we already know about humanitarian work, there is no reason why this crisis will be any different.

We know that GBV goes up, we know that opportunistic crimes go up, we know that crimes against women and girls go up. All of the things that we know about emergencies are going to kick in. What we don’t know yet is what negative coping mechanisms people will adopt and start displaying. In crisis in the past people have turned to sex work, but now social distancing is so important, we do not know what people will turn to.

Every time we have a crisis we have a lot of analysis afterwards, so how do we keep raising gender issues as feminist networks and groups?

In South Africa there has also been a lot of fear about crime, especially being expressed around people potentially resorting to opportunistic crime. It is almost a Catch 22, where you want to be careful and think about things, be able to respond to issues when they happen, but this fear may almost make it happen. Fear can make people act in ways they may not have in the first place.

Anu on deployment

Global responses to COVID-19 may not work for Africa because the contexts are so different. We are also seeing a change in the location of expertise away from the global North with COVID-19. The example of the Cuban doctors flying to Italy to treat patients there is a key example of this. This is what we have been saying for years and what we are now putting into policies around localisation.

The Feminist Humanitarian Network is working to facilitate shared learning and support amongst its members on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19 in countries around the world.To join or support the FHN, please email

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