How to Address the Inequities of COVID-19 with Graça Machel and Melinda Gates

COVID 19 has unearthed massive inequalities within our societies and brought to glaring light the unique burdens which women carry the world over.

Graça Machel and Melinda Gates joined Africa.com to discuss their policy recommendations in regards to women during the pandemic.

Both of these women are strong advocates for women’s issues. And both have governments and private sector conduct policies to not only address inequities experienced by women during COVID-19, but interestingly, both women independently concluded their works with the view that if we manage the responses to these critical issues strategically, women could come out of this period having made important gains.

Graça Machel, Founder of the Graça Machel Trust and the Foundation for Community Development and one of the world’s leading advocates for women’s and children’s rights, recently penned an open letter calling on governments, development agencies, and private sectors to take bold actions to mitigate and drive meaningful reconstruction efforts. Machel, the widow of President Nelson Mandela, says, “We have been presented the opportunity to reimagine and redesign our society into a vibrant and equitable one.”

Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released a paper on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls. In this paper, she puts forward a set of specific, practical policy recommendations that governments could consider in their pandemic response–to improve health systems, design more inclusive economic policies, gather better data, and prioritize women’s leadership.


The following is a transcript from Africa.com’s webinar session with Graça Machel and Melinda Gates led by Teresa Clarke Clarke, Chair & CEO of Africa.com

Teresa Clarke: Mrs. Machel can you please tell us what inspired you to write your open letter on the impact of COVID-19 on African women, ‘bold actions to mitigate and drive meaningful reconstruction efforts’?

Mrs. Machel: When the outbreak of the COVID crisis emerged, I realized that public health measures which were being put in place, were blind to the unique needs of women, adolescents, girls and the poor, especially in rural areas. So, I thought the best way to understand this would be to listen to the voices of women themselves. So, my task convened four pan-African webinars and twelve Instagram live conversations in which the intention was to give space to women to voice out their challenges, their frustrations, but also their aspirations during these times of crisis. 

I might say, I didn’t pen this letter alone. I asked Ngozi Yowala, Dr. Vera Songwe and Maria Ramos as experts in finances to contribute to their thinking, to marry the experience of women we had consulted with the knowledge and expertise and experience of people who are at high level of the public institutions. So, we realized that lockdowns were impacting on the livelihoods of everyone, but particularly of women. Our economies in Africa are mostly informal and that’s where most women are, and this is where they get their source of income to care for their families. 

In the formal economy, women are presented in very small or medium enterprises. They also found the shocks of the pandemic, some of them closing, others struggling to survive. So, it was quite clear to me that the impact of COVID was disproportionately very heavy on women. So, nothing more logic to say, if you have to have a proper response to this and if you want to have any kind of proper redesigning, I mean the reconstruction, you have to bring this to the center and listen to their voices and their aspirations. 

Adding to this, the leadership of women has been proven to mean ‘the one which changes’, I mean the rules of the game. Women bring minds and hearts together, and because of that, we even realized recently that countries which are led by women did respond much better to the COVID crisis than countries led by men. So, nothing is more clear and is evidence that the more we are experiencing challenges, the better the time to bring women to the center stage and to have a leadership, female leadership, to lead. So that was the inspiration for us to pen up this letter and to make this call.

Teresa Clarke: Mrs. Machel, in your letter you made seven specific recommendations. Would you share with us what you considered to be the most important of those recommendations?

Mrs. Machel: I must say that the seven recommendations are part and parcel of the same vision and the same approach. Not necessarily to say that there are some that are more important than others. But for the sake of time, I will mention the 3 that I believe are fundamental. 

All responses must take a gendered perspective into account and must be informed by the voices of women. If this fails, we have half of the earth’s population being out of the redesigning of responses and then we are due to fail. 

We also recommended that governments and development patterns must implement gender sensitive economic policies and contribute to sharpen the capacity of women, in their engineering capacity, to help our economic growth. 

And we also recommend that we need to go beyond just responses. We need to take into account that we do not have enough information about how this impacts on women. We need gender sensitive data reflecting the reality on the ground.

We mentioned in particular the issue of food security and nutrition as well. There is no right you can implement without food, so women mostly being producers of food in Africa, they have to be especially supported to gain the capacity to respond for their families and also for their nations and for the continent.

All the other recommendations are equally important but I believe that they are all part of the same parcel. 

Teresa Clarke: Melinda, we are going to turn to you. Let me ask you the same questions that I asked Mrs. Machel. What inspired you to write your article on this very topic and please share with us not only your inspiration, but what you consider to be the two or three most important recommendations you’ve made in the same area.

Melinda: I was inspired to write this paper because we are all living through this COVID pandemic all over the world and it is wreaking havoc on not just our bodies and our health, but it is exposing the fault lines in society that have existed for so long. And like Mrs. Machel, I am hearing about the impact, and where we have data, I am seeing the impact on women. And so, in this paper that I did for Foreign Affairs, I highlighted 4 key areas, which mirror really closely to what Mrs. Machel and the others’ paper says; we have to look at women’s health first. 

If you go back to the time of the Ebola crisis in the four affected countries, there was a shadow pandemic that went right alongside the Ebola and that had to do with maternal mortality and infant and child deaths. We are already seeing this in the health systems in the countries most affected by COVID-19. 

Number two: we have to look at the economics of how we help women build back and build back better. They are being pushed out of the labor force if it is the formal economy and if it is the informal economy; they are working on so many pieces at home, trying to put a meal on the table, taking care of the elderly in the house, taking care of the kids. So, we have to look at how we put women at the center, across the continent of Africa and in all the different countries, to help women economically get back on their feet.

Third is data. Without data we can’t make great policy decisions. Some countries that already have access to some of this data, are very smart about how they, for example, do government cash transfer payments directly into a woman’s account, because they know that what goes into a woman’s account, will be spent on the family. So data is my third one and then fourth is women’s leadership.

And when I say leadership, I mean at grassroots level all the way up to high level. Women have a lens on society that is just different, quite honestly, different than most men, not all men.  But when we connect these grassroot women’s or men’s organizations who are looking at women’s issues with high level leadership and they have a seat at the table, you start to change and create different policies that benefit women and families. 

And so those 4 key areas: health, economics, data, and women’s leadership are the 4 that I highlight in this particular piece. 

Teresa Clarke: Let me ask you another question. When you look across Africa, can you point out any particular government or private sector players that you see taking specific actions to address gender equality in their early responses to the pandemic?

Melinda: Absolutely. The Ethiopian government for instance, immediately saw that women were going to be more afraid to come into the health system. They immediately started putting out these home birth kits so that if you needed to stay in your local area to give birth, and you can’t make it or you don’t want to come into the health post to see a midwife, you have a clean, inexpensive birth kit to help cut the cord, keep the woman safe, keep the area clean; that can make a huge difference.  

We are seeing in Kenya that the government, in its economic survey, is specifically asking questions about women. We are seeing some of the mobile data offerings much less expensive and sometimes even free because we know there is a big gap. There’s a gap not just in phone ownership, but the bigger gap is do women have access to the internet? That is another great policy. 

The last one I’ll highlight is in Ghana. They are making sure that they are waiving utility fees for women-led businesses. So, if you have a small vegetable stand and you keep the light on at night, they’re waving those fees. I think that makes a huge difference for women-led businesses during this time. 

Teresa Clarke: Mrs. Machel, we have a question from Oby Ezekwesili, Senior Economic Advisor, Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative, who is the co-founder of #BringBackOurGirls; the effort that drew attention to the 300 Nigerian girls who were abducted by Boko Haram. She’s currently leading #ChicksPolitics, to develop a public leadership initiative in Africa to prepare girls for elective office. 

Oby: What a pleasure to have these two wonderful women on the panel. Women leading in politics and public leadership is still very low on our continent. It is about 23%. How quickly therefore, can those of us that are here today, do the kinds of things and scale up the kinds of things that you and Melinda are speaking about and doing, so that we can intentionally and skillfully begin to mobilize the critical resources that are partnership, knowledge, and finance in order to scale the number of women whose barrier to entry into politics and public leadership have been removed, so we have greater sources?

Mrs. Machel: The experience tells us that women who have the drive and the capacity to run for public spaces, particularly at the top, they try to do it on their own with the efforts which they can be supported with here and there. But there is no common and agreed strategy amongst the African women, to take this struggle collectively and to feel that it is upon us to create the space and strategies through which we will get to those positions. So, to be very specific, I propose you know, and I haven’t spoken to my big sister, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She established a center which exactly promotes this kind of leadership for African women.

My suggestion would be, Oby and all those who are interested in this, let Ellen convene us. Let us sit and bring to the table women who have been in positions of high politics, those who are, those who are aspiring to and any other women who are interested. For us to draft the wisest strategy in which we can rally about, whether you are in Senegal, Morocco, or in Malawi, for us to have a common tool through which we can define what is the first step and the second step and who do we count on. We work together to make sure that we effect a significant and visible transformation of the  African political landscape. 

But trying to do this one by one according to your own resources, this machinery is very, very heavy and it is very resistant to change. Only a movement which is organized can break it down step by step and open the avenues which are required. This is it. This is what we are aiming at. So, I thought it would be very wrong of me to try to give a specific strategy of how to do it. I say, let’s create a space, let us strategize, and let’s have a tool around which we all rally and we work to convince men and women,  that yes, women are the ones who we have been waiting for to design  the table themselves. They are not only called to join the table, no, we have to redesign the table together to make sure that we take ownership of what the transformation is going to be.

Teresa Clarke: Thank you very much for that response which I think is really spot on. We have a question now for Melinda Gates. We are going to bring in Konyin Ajayi.  Konyin is the Managing Partner of Oluwa Nanjai, a leading property law firm from Nigeria, Konin please, you can ask your question to Melinda.

Konyin: Thank you very much for the opportunity and thank you for the work you both are doing. A quick question. In a recent analysis published in the Lancet Global Health, it suggested that a reduction in maternal health services of between 9.8 and 18% could lead to as many as 12,200 additional maternal deaths over six months in middle- and lower-income countries. So, my quick question, based on that report, is what are the dynamics behind the scenes that can lead to decrease in the uptake of health services, and are there behavioral interventions or resources that can be deployed to ensure women and children receive basic health care that they require at this time? And the last point is, taking from what you said in your opening statement about the lengths with which women refract things, how can we get society to see the lengths that women use?

Melinda: Thanks for your question. You know, as pertains to maternal health and child health during a crisis like this, the shadow pandemic we are already seeing with COVID-19. Some of the things we can do;  what I am seeing in some of the more innovative small health centers, is that they are separating, which we are seeing all over the world. You try and separate your COVIC-19 patients from your maternity ward or you have a different door that the women come in through. And where you may have had maternal services on the one side before and child services on the other, you try and put all those in one place. To ask women to come in on Monday for one service and Tuesday for another service and Thursday for childhood vaccinations, that just doesn’t work anymore. And so, we have to think about the scheduling piece of it and the separation where you can, or, if women are afraid to come in, how do you reach them where they are? How do you send the healthcare workers out, donned in appropriate PPE, and how do you understand from home to home, who has needs in terms of delivering babies et cetera? 

The other thing I would say is family planning. We saw during the Ebola epidemic, an enormous rise in teen pregnancies and unplanned births. I was literally just before this, on a video call with a young woman in Kenya, who was serving youth groups in Kenya; they are absolutely seeing teen pregnancies already on the rise because of COVID-19. So, continuing to counsel adolescent girls about their bodies in Niger, the ‘young girl collectives’ have figured out that they need to change their schedules so that fewer of them gather at the same time. They gather at different times of the day, well-spaced but they still learn about their bodies, they still learn about child spacing, planning of births. We know again from Ebola, that the girls who stayed in a girls’ collective during the time of Ebola, actually had lower teen pregnancy rates than the girls that didn’t. 

And lastly, I would say, as we get through this COVID epidemic, making sure on the back end, that we welcome girls back into school. We waive the school fees which is what happened in Ghana, they waived both school and testing fees for two years, that pulls the young adolescent girls back in and again allows them to be educated and pull themselves out of poverty.

Teresa Clarke: We would like to implore governments in Africa and around the world to listen to their sage advice as it is universally relevant. We hope to inspire all on this call today, to hold our leaders accountable and to play whatever role you can play in seizing this moment to effect change. This can be an inspiration for what we want to do for women everywhere. And we can all ask to be a part of the movement to effect change for women in Africa.

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