Women’s work, food and reproductive labour: a snapshot of gender equality research at UCT

04 August 2020 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo The Wot-If? Trust, Wikimedia. Read time 8 min.

Every year on 9 August we celebrate Women’s Day in commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March, when thousands of women marched to Pretoria to protest against apartheid pass laws. Now, 64 years later, gender equality might be enshrined in our constitution but women in South Africa still face deeply embedded gender inequalities that affect their access to healthcare, education and new technology. Researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are working to better understand the ongoing challenges that women face as well as the ways where the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected women’s lives.

Women and the informal economy

In South Africa, as is the case globally, women predominate in the informal economy, particularly in segments in which remuneration remains low.

According to Caroline Skinner, African Centre for Cities researcher and urban research director of the global research policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO),  women are disproportionately impacted by crises that affect this economic sector.

“For the last four months our work has focused on how the COVID crisis has impacted on women in the informal economy and how best we can respond to the crisis through public policy. In the latest report we analysed nationally representative data on impacts of COVID-19 on informal workers and the gendered dimension is profound: of the three million jobs lost over lockdown, two million were women. We also found that current support like the special COVID-19 grant has predominately gone to men (65% as of the end of June).”

Skinner explains that it is critical to spotlight the gendered nature of impacts so that government and civil society can take this into account when designing support measures.

Women and food security

Dr Jane Battersby has been researching food systems in southern Africa since 2007 and is currently based at the African Centre for Cities at UCT. According to her research, the informal food retail environment is also gendered, with women more likely than men to sell cooked foods, such as vetkoek/amagwinya. In South Africa, the sale of such food was banned under level five COVID-19 lockdown regulations which meant that women in the food system were disproportionately impacted by these regulations.

More broadly, Battersby’s research shows that women in South Africa still bear most of the responsibility for food procurement and preparation in their households.


“The result is that these factors have also led to higher rates of diet-related non-communicable diseases in women than men.”

“The Nourishing Spaces project, which takes a food and urban systems approach towards preventing diet-related non-communicable diseases in African cities, has found clear gendered dimensions in food consumption practices, health status and food system activities,” she explains.

Battersby says that food choices, and the way that food is distributed in households, are complex decisions informed by economic, social, cultural and physical factors - all of which are gendered.

“The result is that these factors have also led to higher rates of diet-related non-communicable diseases in women than men.”

Women and new digital technologies

Professor Ulrike Rivett, director of the School of Information Technology (IT) at UCT, is part of a multinational team currently embarking on new research to better understand the gendered nature of access to digital technologies.

“Right now, digital innovation in Africa is taking place against a backdrop of highly unequal societies and there is a risk that increasing digitisation will amplify these inequalities when it comes to gender equity,” explains Rivett.

The Gender-Just Digital Innovation in Africa (GeDIA) project, a new initiative funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), will create a network of support for women academics working in the field and set the research agenda around the idea that women are central actors in Africa’s digital future.

“The project will include academic and non-academic partners in four different African countries," continues Rivett. "Each group will focus on a specific aspect, including data visualisation tools to aid gender justice campaigns, digital service design and ensuring better access for girls and women in training and careers in data science.”

Women and reproductive labour

Associate Professor Amrita Pande, a sociologist and feminist ethnographer at UCT, is currently researching the global fertility market, including the international market for egg providers, surrogates, brokers, doctors and prospective parents.

“You might think that new fertility technologies would remove the burden of reproductive labour from women, or at the very least, challenge societal norms. But in fact, my recent research shows that the global fertility industry reaffirms pre-existing inequalities.”

These inequalities are reproduced in several ways, according to Pande. On an individual level, most surrogates and egg providers are women from poorer countries in the global south, who bear children for richer couples hailing from the global north. On a national scale, she likens the industry to other factory industries that move from one country to another as the regulatory legislation is passed in each successive place.


“Digital innovation in Africa is taking place against a backdrop of highly unequal societies and there is a risk that increasing digitisation will amplify these inequalities when it comes to gender equity.”

In South Africa, according to Pande, most egg providers are young white Afrikaans-speaking women who come from smaller cities in the Western Cape. They are paid between USD 2 000–USD 3 000 to travel to egg banks across the world for about 15 days, during which time their eggs are harvested.

The results from Pande's work on reproductive labour of South African egg providers was recently published in the journal Gender and Society," Visa stamps for injections: Traveling Bio-labour and South African egg provision".

Women and young motherhood

Dr Rebecca Hodes, a medical historian based at the AIDS and Society Research Unit, Centre for Social Science Research at UCT, first began researching changing attitudes towards teen pregnancy in South Africa in 2012.

Over the course of three years, Hodes and a team of fellow researchers travelled around the Eastern and Western Cape as part of the Mzantsi Wakho study, the largest known mixed-methods, community-based study on anti-retroviral treatment (ART) adherence and sexual health among adolescents.

“After extensive interviews we discovered that teen pregnancy has undergone a ‘discursive makeover’, transforming a once tacitly accepted practice into a source of shame on the personal level and a scandal on the national level.”

Another theme that emerged from the research was the notion that young women are working on a pregnancy-for-profit model, deliberately having babies in order to receive the government child grant.

“In fact the opposite is true. In reality young parents stretch child grant income to cover their children's health and nutrition, and then as a means of survival for their family in the absence of income from jobs,” she explains.

The results from Hodes’ current research have been published as a chapter in a new book, Connected Lives: Families, Households, Youth and Risk.

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