Written by Dr Jane Usher – Head of Department, Milpark Business School
In South Africa we are officially post COVID-19, with the government lifting the remaining disaster management restrictions in June 2022. Reviewing the status of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is apparent that there has been a regression in the progress to achieve them during the pandemic, when crisis management became a priority and all other goals were deemed to be non-essential.
Most South Africans are celebrating the government’s decision to abandon the remaining COVID-19 laws, which introduces the freedom to not wear face masks, drops all limits on gatherings, and ends the need to be vaccinated when coming into South Africa. However, we are still struggling to manage the impact that the pandemic has had on the social, economic and psychological dimensions of our lives.
South Africans can also feel proud of the new laws on gender-based violence that were approved by the President on 28 January 2022. The purpose of these new laws is to assist in the protection of both women and children. Unfortunately, these laws will not actually stop harm and abuse from happening. So, what can we do to tackle this heinous issue? We could look to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for direction.
I don’t think we should see the SDGs in isolation because they each link and integrate with one another in some way. In this article I would like to look at the following SDGs. SDG 4, which relates to Quality Education; SDG 5, which relates to Gender Equality; and SDG 8, which relates to Decent Work and Economic Growth. So, why do these specific goals matter in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic? What is the ultimate goal of each of them?
A quick overview on the essence of the SDGs that we are focussing on in this article may help. SDG 4 – Quality Education’s goal is to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. SDG 5 – Gender Equality’s goal is “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth’s goal is “to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all”. So, as I mentioned, we need to look at these goals in an integrated way, especially considering where we are nationally and globally after the pandemic. Governments and organisations are still struggling to navigate the different ways of life and work that have emerged.
Organisations are still trying to bed down new ways of working and are grappling with the notions of remote, hybrid and on-site working. Over the past two and half years, many organisations have been treading water and trying to stay afloat. The focus has not been on ensuring that the organisation’s diversity and inclusion practices are being vigorously adhered to. In the same vein, governments and organisations have not devoted time and attention to achieving the SDGs.
There have been many articles written about the increase in gender-based violence (GBV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The progress that we have made towards achieving the goal of Gender Equality SDG 5 has been severely eroded. The pandemic triggered an escalation in GBV and IPV towards women and girls in South Africa and beyond.
The harsh lockdown restrictions changed the way people lived and worked and there was no access to help for those vulnerable to domestic violence. The domestic violence response services that had been in place before the pandemic were deprioritised because of governments’ focus on resources to contain the pandemic. Victims of domestic violence living under lockdown measures could not reach other people who could help them, nor could they flee their houses to find protection.
In addition, organisations that provided protection and support to women and children who were victims of abuse were not seen or categorised as essential services. This led to a sharp decline in both cases being filed and support being given where needed. Victims had no relief from their abusers. Abusers could beat, rape and emotionally abuse their victims around the clock.
According to Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, “lockdown measures meant that women could not escape abusive patterns or leave their homes to seek protection.” 1 There has been a disproportionate impact on females’ socio-economic welfare. This is where SDG 8’s focus on Decent Work and Economic Growth comes into play.
Lockdown in South Africa and around the globe had an immense and unprecedented negative economic impact on families. The resultant loss of jobs and therefore the reduction in earnings was one of the key drivers of violence. It also increased the risk factors for GBV and IPV within family groups, specifically for women and children. Many women lost their jobs because of the pandemic and became even more dependent economically on those around them. According to Clark and Clark,2 many of the women who work in the informal sector lost their jobs. Also, fewer women are in tele-commutable jobs 3, which resulted in either the loss of jobs or challenges relating to their continued ability to work. An increased dependence on their male counterparts for financial support made it increasingly difficult for them to leave their abusers. So, throughout the pandemic, both SDGs 5 and 8 suffered immense setbacks.
SDG 4, which refers to quality education and lifelong learning, has also been stalled. Overall, from school level to tertiary education through to executive education, there have been challenges. Many organisations stopped funding the learning and development of their employees because of priorities elsewhere. Hopefully, there will now be a refocus on education, training and lifelong learning.
Another element that needs to be explored is whether the practicalities of fulfilling SDG goals 4, 5 and 8 lie solely with learning and development and human resources teams. Essentially, for these initiatives to be successful, all members of an organisation need to be invested in the process.
Individuals need to assess their existing skill sets and identify what competencies they still require to make an impact at work. Line managers need to have conversations with their employees to discuss and implement practical and constructive personal development plans. Learning and development teams need to assess their organisation’s skills and competency base and identify areas that require attention. Leadership teams need to see continued learning as a priority and incorporate initiatives into their strategies and budgets.
Looking at SDG 5 on gender equality, there is also much that the human resources department can do in terms of learning and development to ensure that women have a fair chance of promotion, inclusion and recognition, as well as training and development. In addition to this area of SDG 5, human resource departments and leadership need to assess their policies to see how they deal with employees who are living with domestic abuse. What is being done to support and assist these employees? We also need to bear in mind that GBV and IPV are not restricted to women.
In the second half of 2022, it is critical for organisations to reflect on what has happened over the past two and a half years to ascertain the best way to move forward. Priorities need to be realigned with specific SDGs for strategies going into 2023. SDG plans and champions need to be put in place to ensure that these critical elements can be put back into the spotlight so that they are not permanently neglected.
1 Amnesty International. Southern Africa: Homes become dangerous place for women and girls during COVID-19 lockdown. (2021) February 9.
2 Arthur C, and Clark R. Determinants of domestic violence: a cross-national study. Int J Soc Family. (2009) 35:147–67.
3 Alon TM, Olmstead-Rumsey J, Doepke M, and Tertilt M. The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality. Cambridge: Working Paper National Bureau of Economic Research. (2020) 26947.