Picture: 123RF/Laurin Rinder
Picture: 123RF/Laurin Rinder

Globally, women in the labour market have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 crisis. This has been ascribed to two key factors: sectors of the economy in which women are concentrated have taken a particularly hard knock as a result of lockdown restrictions; and women have had to take on much of the extra burden of care associated with school closures, further constraining their ability to work.

SA appears to be no exception. The Nids-Cram survey, which has been tracking a sample of South Africans 18 years and older since the start of the crisis, found that twice as many women as men lost their jobs during the strict lockdown phase in April. Overall, women’s employment fell by 23% between February and April, while men’s fell by 10%.

The recent release of the third wave of Nids-Cram data allows us to gauge how women have fared as the economy reopened and children returned to school.

Though little change was reported in net employment between April and June (coinciding with the lockdown moving from level 5 to level 3), the most recent wave of data suggests a substantial jobs recovery between June and October (the move from level 3 to level 1), for women and men alike.

The recovery for women, however, appears to be slower.

While men’s employment was only about 2% below pre-Covid levels in October, women’s employment was still down 8%. Average working hours among employed men had returned to pre-Covid levels in October, but they were still down by about two hours among employed women.


Though the relatively small sample size of about 6,000 adults implies not-insignificant margins of error around these point estimates, it is probably safe to claim that the recovery in the job market has been slower for women than it has been for men.

Despite this, women have been less likely to benefit from the support offered to the unemployed during the crisis.

According to the Nids-Cram data, women made up more than half (60%) of the unemployed in October, but only 39% of the beneficiaries of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and its temporary employee relief scheme (Ters), and only 37% of the beneficiaries of the social relief of distress grant (SRDG) in October.

Women were probably less likely to benefit from the UIF system as they were less likely to be registered for UIF in the first place.

But they have also been less able to benefit from the new SRDG, which was introduced to help those employed in precarious and unregistered work in the informal sector and those not employed at all.

One of the conditions attached to the R350 SRDG was that beneficiaries were not allowed to hold another grant concurrently. Because many (unemployed) women collect the child support grant on behalf of a child they care for, they would not have been able to collect the SRDG too.

Tying an adult’s access to social protection to their caregiving role, while expedient, is unwise and unfair

Instead, women looking after children would have benefited from the top-up to the child support grant (CSG) of R500 a month from June to October, which at times was referred to as a "caregiver’s grant".

Tying an adult’s access to social protection to their caregiving role — especially when caregiving is so highly gendered — while expedient, is unwise and unfair.

This became all the more evident when, in October, the CSG and other grant top-ups came to an end, while the SRDG was extended by another three months, to January 2021. And in his state of the nation address last week, the president announced a further three-month extension.

Unemployed women who also care for children have effectively fallen through the holes in our social protection system.

Women in SA were already more likely than men to live in poverty pre-Covid, and they have been hit harder by the crisis in the job market. As talks continue on how best to extend or redesign SA’s grant system, supporting women in their own right should be placed front and centre of the debate.

*Casale is from Wits University; Shepherd is from Stellenbosch University

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