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08 April 2021 | Story Nonsindiso Qwabe | Photo Sonia SMall

How has COVID-19 further widened the gender inequality gap in the workplace?

This was the central question addressed during the first instalment of a webinar series on Gender and Social Justice hosted by the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of the Free State (UFS). The webinar, which was hosted on the UFS Qwaqwa Campus on 29 March 2021, featured Prof Pearl Sithole, Qwaqwa Campus Vice-Principal: Academic and Research; Advocate Nthabiseng Sepanya-Mogale, Commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE); and Tholo Motaung, skills trainer, moderator, and gender activist at the Vaal University of Technology as panellists. 

Prof Sithole said COVID-19 revealed the disparity that still exists between men and women in the workplace. “COVID-19 has been the magnifier. We’ve modernised quite a lot, but we’re still unequal in terms of gender. Why are we not progressing in terms of women moving forward towards equality when there has been so much progressive thinking in the political space, social justice space, as well as in the kind of feminism we have had in academia? Why are we actually not winning the battle of just regarding each other as equals?” 

Women hardest hit by COVID-19 lockdown

Advocate Sepanya-Mogale said the lockdown revealed the gender gap mostly through the significant impact it has had on South African women.

In 2020, 34% of the country’s workforce comprised women – a sharp decline of 9,8% from 43,8% in 2018.
“This decline is alarming and a clear indication of who becomes the first victims, but that is hardly talked about. A lot of women have experienced resistance from industries they had been serving diligently,” she said. She said women were often faced with the burden of integrating their work with increased care responsibilities for their children and sometimes also the elderly as primary caregivers. The double responsibility placed on women continues to re-enforce gender roles in our societies and further pushes away the success of closing the gap on gender equality prospects in our society.

Advocate Sepanya-Mogale said women were the hardest hit in most industries. In the beauty and tourism industry; air transportation; informal trading; and healthcare sector to name a few, women bore the brunt the most. “Women are the biggest employees on all economic levels in South Africa, especially the low-income and unskilled levels,” she said.
She said as the spread of the virus was likely to continue disrupting economic activity, all sectors of society needed to get involved and play their part.

“As disease outbreaks are not likely to disappear in the near future, proactive international action is required to not only save lives but to also protect economic prosperity. Academic institutions are authorities in terms of opening up new discussions, leading new debates, and putting critical issues at the centre of the table. Let us all do what we can so that we empower our people relevantly for the times we’re living in.”

News Archive

#Women'sMonth: Save the children
2017-08-10

Description: Trudi O'Neill Tags: : rotaviruses, young children, Dr Trudi O’Neill, Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, vaccine 

Dr Trudi O’Neill, Senior lecturer in the Department of
Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

Dr Trudi O’Neill, Senior lecturer in the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, is conducting research on rotavirus vaccines.

Dr O’Neill was inspired to conduct research on this issue through her fascination with the virus. “The biology of rotaviruses, especially the genome structure and the virus’ interaction with the host, is fascinating.”

“In fact, it is estimated that, globally, ALL children will be infected with rotavirus before the age of five, irrespective of their socio-economic standing. However, infants and young children in poor countries are more vulnerable due to inadequate healthcare. The WHO estimates that approximately 215 000 deaths occur each year. This roughly equates to eight Airbus A380 planes, the largest commercial carrier with a capacity of approximately 500 seats, filled with only children under the age of five, crashing each week of every year.”

Alternative to expensive medicines 
“Currently, there are two vaccines that have been licensed for global use. However, these vaccines are expensive and poor countries, where the need is the greatest, are struggling to introduce them sustainably. It is therefore appealing to study rotaviruses, as it is scientifically challenging, but could at the same time have an impact on child health,” Dr O’Neill said.

The main focus of Dr O’Neill’s research is to develop a more affordable vaccine that can promote child vaccination in countries/areas that cannot afford the current vaccines.

All about a different approach 

When asked about the most profound finding of her research, Dr O’Neill responded: “It is not so much a finding, but rather the approach. My rotavirus research group is making use of yeast as vehicle to produce a sub-unit vaccine. These microbes are attractive, as they are relatively easy to manipulate and cheap to cultivate. Downstream production costs can therefore be reduced. The system we use was developed by my colleagues, Profs Koos Albertyn and Martie Smit, and allows for the potential use of any yeast. This enables us to screen a vast number of yeasts in order to identify the best yeast producer.”

Vaccination recently acquired a bad name in the media for its adverse side effects. As researcher, Dr O’Neill has this to say: “Vaccines save lives. By vaccinating your child, you don’t just protect your own child from a potentially deadly infection, but also other children in your community that might be too young to be vaccinated or have pre-existing health problems that prevents vaccination.” 

A future without rotavirus vaccination?

Dr O’Neill believes a future without rotavirus vaccination will be a major step backwards, as the impact of rotavirus vaccines has been profound. “Studies in Mexico and Malawi actually show a reduction in deaths. A colleague in Mozambique has commented on the empty hospital beds that amazed both clinicians and scientists only one year after the introduction of the vaccine in that country. Although many parents, mostly in developed countries, don’t have to fear dehydrating diarrhoea and potential hospitalisation of their babies due to rotavirus infection anymore, such an infection could still be a death sentence in countries that have not been able to introduce the vaccine in their national vaccination programmes,” she said. 

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