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Gender Equality in Post-Colonial Societies: The Impact of HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

This week’s #GLOVicariously webinar featured Dr. Amanda Gouws, professor of political science and research chair in gender politics at Stellenbosch University who teaches in the Public Health and Development in South Africa Northwestern study abroad program. Dr. Gouws discussed barriers to gender equality in post-colonial societies such as South Africa. Specifically, she highlighted the ongoing issue of gender-based violence in South Africa, and how this violence is exacerbated by pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

First, Dr. Gouws compared some world leaders’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic to South African leaders’ response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic: “In South Africa when the AIDS pandemic was at its height in the early 2000s, we had the highest infection rate in the world and we had a huge struggle to get the government to engage with the science of HIV/AIDS,” she said. “So in the face of evidence of medical research, our president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, did not accept the results of science.”

Dr. Gouws explained that “AIDS denialists” preferred to interpret AIDS as a result of poverty, rather than sexual activity, to avoid the negative connotations—constructed and perpetuated by colonialism—of sexual activity with promiscuity. This led to huge stigmatization of people who are HIV-positive, which discourages disclosure of the disease and prevents early treatment, perpetuating the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

In South Africa, however, HIV/AIDS—and COVID-19—spreads disproportionately along gender dimensions, with women having a higher contraction rate of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Dr. Gouws provided multiple reasons for these data, including:

  • It is more culturally accepted that men have multiple sex partners, even during marriage, increasing the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS;
  • Women lack access to contraceptives that can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases;
  • Gender norms make it difficult for women to negotiate safe sex practices such as condom use; and
  • Male circumcision reinforces some traditional gender scripts and also makes men believe they don’t need to use a condom. 

Yet even as the rate of infection of HIV/AIDS is higher for women in South Africa than for men, women also disproportionately carry the burden of care for AIDS without adequate compensation or sanitary equipment. Dr. Gouws described that women are “actually exploited by the state” by having to spend their meager wages on providing care for their patients.

Dr. Gouws illuminated similar situations in the gender dimensions of COVID-19 in South Africa. Specifically, Dr. Gouws noted COVID-19 is making it increasingly is difficult for women to provide social reproduction, or the care work needed to produce the next generation but also to look after the elderly and young children, including homeschooling demands created by the pandemic. This is exacerbated by the rampant increase in poverty and starvation in the country and the reduction in employment opportunities for women, who often supplemented their income through opportunities such as street vending that are made impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ultimately, “what COVID-19 has done for all countries is to show up global inequalities,” Dr. Gouws said, and South Africa is no exception. The lack of safety and capacity in the public health care system in South Africa, coupled with the increase in intimate femicide and domestic violence in South Africa, have rendered South Africa even more dangerous for women during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Gouws also noted that gender-based violence costs the South African government between R28 and R42 billion per year. “That is an enormous amount of money that can be saved if we can work to eliminate gender-based violence,” she said. Unfortunately, gender-based violence issues are not at the forefront of politicians’ agendas any more than before COVID-19, she said. 

“Post-COVID, I’m not sure that things will improve, because what we will now have is a country where there’s 50% unemployment and incredible poverty, and the contraction of the economy means that you won’t be able to go find a job somewhere because there will be no jobs to find,” Dr. Gouws said. “And that I think is going to lead to incredible tension and then we will see the cycle of violence again. So I am not very optimistic.”

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About #GLOVicariously Webinar Series:

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing anti-racism protests, global engagement across difference and development of intercultural skills are critically needed to build a more just and peaceful world. We want to continue fostering global learning opportunities for students throughout this summer 2020 through our virtual webinar series, #GLOVicariously. #GLOVicariously webinars feature speakers involved in GLO programs who have expertise on a variety of critical global issues. View upcoming #GLOVicariously webinars.