Why women are at the centre of Cameroon’s fight against COVID-19
Women and girls are the most exposed to the economic fallout in the wake of COVID-19
It is a lively day in one of the many market areas of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.
Street vendors at small tables or carts are selling their goods: bananas, mangoes, pineapples, rice, cassava, plantain, greens. Among the customers are women in colourful pattern print dresses who buy these staple foods so they can make their families’ favourite dishes, such as eru vegetable stew, or ndole stew with peanuts, spinach, and bitter greens, or subtly sweet snacks of plantain and black-eyed peas. Friends meet and share their latest news.
This once innocent scene is now fraught for many Cameroonians. The threat of COVID-19 has changed life at the market, and throughout the country.
“Outdoor markets are at the crossroads of Cameroonian economy and culture,” says Allegra Baiocchi, UN Cameroon's Resident Coordinator. Indeed, the country is known as Africa in miniature, thanks to its diverse nature and population. That diversity is reflected in the foods and people at the markets. “The variety here, the life here—that’s part of what makes the markets so vibrant. But it’s also what makes them so vulnerable.”
Places such as this—where people come into close contact—are potential hotspots to spread disease. On March 6, authorities announced the country’s first case of COVID-19; since then, currently, some 6,700 people have been infected in all ten of the country's regions, and 200 have died.
UN Cameroon has worked closely with the government to curb the pandemic, with a focus on women. They’ve worked with everyone from elderly religious leaders to young people living with HIV to outdoor market vendors—some of the people who are either most likely to get or transmit coronavirus, or prevent it.
"COVID-19 can cause respiratory problems and, in the worst-case scenario, lead to death,” says Bernadette, one of the vendors. She’s sharing information she learned from educational sessions that UN Women gave to 200 street vendors in the capital along with hygiene kits including soap and face masks, as well as umbrellas to protect them from the scorching sun. In these sessions, UN Cameroon’s chief medical doctor explained coronavirus and took any and all questions on the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is now part of our reality,” says Alex, a vendor who has sold vegetables in the market for almost four years. “I am trying to avoid it by taking protective measures. I wear my mask, and when I get home, before greeting my wife and two children, I change my clothes and take a shower. The UN has helped us do our part to stop the pandemic from spreading.”
“Women and girls are the most exposed to the economic fallout,” says UN Women's representative for Cameroon, Hind Jalal. “Schools and care services are closed, so there’s greater pressure on women to educate and care for their children all day. The risk of violence against women increases, as families are in close quarters.”
Lucy is another vendor. She has sold fruits and vegetables to support her family ever since her husband lost his job. “I have two children of my own, but since the death of my sisters it is up to me to provide for their children,” she says. “Thanks to my business, I can put food on the table.”
All across Cameroon, women just like Lucy are working daily in the informal sector. UNDP statistics show that almost 83% of jobs in Cameroon are in the informal sector, where workers have few or no protections. Women represent 80% of the agricultural sector’s labour force—often hard work with long hours and little protection against job loss or injury.
In other words, the vast majority of the people providing food for the country are women, and women are the most at risk to become infected with coronavirus and bear the brunt of the economic burden. As a result, their families suffer, too.
“Women play a vital role in the economy of the family and the country,” says the UN’s Allegra Baiocchi. “They are also central to raising risk awareness and promoting safe practices in their communities. That’s why UN Cameroon is placing women and gender sensitivity at the centre of our COVID-19 response. When women are protected and supported, the whole country benefits.”