by Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren

Image credit: author, Dworzark informal settlement, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

How are women, in particular disabled women, affected by COVID-19 in informal settlements in the global South? Although there is a range of information emerging (in addition to what we can extrapolate from previous health crises), in reality it is difficult to know, at this stage, the extent to which women are being affected. This is because the crisis is still unfolding (and thus any explanations fall short), and because options for generating data that can give us an accurate sense remain limited. While quantitative gender data sets – collected by governments and collated by international organisations (for example, gender data trackers by Global Health and UN Women-WHO) – are emerging, they largely depict the effects of the pandemic in the global North. The UK Office for National Statistics data on how men and women spend their time in the lockdown is one such example. Much less has been documented about the lived experiences of women, particularly disabled women, in informal settlements in the global South.

In this piece, I present some of the information available about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender, disability and informal settlements, taking on mostly an additive approach, as more information and critical analysis is needed to understand the intersectional impact of the pandemic.[i] In addition, I share information from ongoing online conversations with community leaders, grassroots organisations and NGOs working in Freetown (Sierra Leone), Banjarmasin (Indonesia) and Valparaíso (Chile),[ii] as part of my work at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit at University College London (DPU-UCL).[iii] I do so to centre the lived experiences of these communities towards gaining an in-depth insight into the contextual specificities of the gender data gathered so far.

What has been documented?

International and grassroots organisations alike (UN Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women & UN Policy Brief a Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19; We Are Plan C) have identified the gendered impact of the pandemic such as intensification of reproductive work for women (and girls), precarity of jobs, and increase in gender-based violence worldwide, especially against disabled women and girls. Additionally, the physical and social conditions of living in informal settlements add further precarity in the lives of low-income residents, as international housing alliances are highlighting (Habitat International Coalition; Asian Coalition for Housing Rights; Slum Dwellers International). Emerging research shows ‘(…) a combination of population density and inadequate access to water and sanitation, (…) makes standard advice about social distancing and washing hands implausible [in informal settlements] (Wilkinson, 2020; p.1), posing specific risks for female dwellers, in particular those who are disabled. Disabled women could be ‘(…) left without vital support and advocacy due to the effects of COVID-19, with their rights denied, and them being put at risk of being the hardest hit by this crisis.’

From previous health crises, we know that informal settlements tend to be gravely affected and that global health policies have been slow at recognising the gender and disability dimensions of health emergencies. Evidence from the West African Ebola outbreak (2014-2016) shows that women (and gender more broadly) remain largely invisible at every point of the international health response (Smith, 2019). Disabled people in particular, faced lack of access to food and health services, increased discrimination and lack of information about the epidemic.

What do we know so far?

In the last few months at DPU-UCL, we have been attending to the ways in which dwellers of informal settlements are being affected by the pandemic. This emerges from a relationship of care and mutual concern for the well-being of communities where we have conducted research in the past (Valparaíso) or are currently doing so (Freetown, Banjarmasin). We have been working with the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP),  Sierra Leone Research Centre, the Indonesian NGOs Kota Kita and Kaki Kota to understand the lived experiences of disability in informal settlements.

1. Decreased livelihoods have resulted in lack of access to food: Maria, a female community leader from the largest informal settlement in Valparaíso, explained the need for organising community kitchens via Facebook Messenger (April 24, 2020). “It is not the virus we are worried about, it is unemployment. It is the number of people that are losing their jobs, which are already informal, and children that are not getting their meals because they are not going to school. Some people don’t have anything to eat.” This has been expressed as the main and most visible issue in all three cities, and dwellers experience it as one of the most pressing threats of confinement. In Freetown, most disabled people beg for income, which has affected their possibilities of buying food, in line with the findings of the Ebola outbreak mentioned above. In Banjarmasin, the support of NGOs and local government has been key for disabled people. In Banjarmasin, Kaki Kota NGO explained how disabled people have lost their livelihoods: “Blind women who tend to work as masseuses have lost their jobs, that is why the support that we and the Mayor’s office are bringing is so important,” Eka told me on WhatsApp (June 10, 2020).

2. Effects of quarantine and social distancing measures on informal care systems and networks: A few days after the first case of COVID-19 was registered in Freetown (March 31, 2020 ), I had a WhatsApp video call with Yirah, the Head of FEDURP, who explained: “Social distancing is just not possible here, we would need to expand to all the city (sic) if we were to be two meters apart from each other.” In Freetown, there was only a three-day lockdown in April, meaning that there is currently movement in the settlements. However, disabled people have told FEDURP that if social distancing is enforced more strictly, they are at the risk of losing everyday support they receive from neighbours and friends. In Valparaíso and Banjarmasin, where lockdown enforcements have been more severe, women that we spoke with said that children not attending school and fewer options for childcare support have caused a serious financial, social and psychological burden for them. Previous research shows how neighbours and extended family are key to providing uncommodified childcare in informal settlements in Valparaíso (Ossul-Vermehren, 2019). As Maria said, “We are worried about older people that already have limited health care support and it is more difficult for us to look after them if they are on their own in the settlement.”

3. High rates of gender-based violence against disabled women and girls: Disabled women are disproportionally affected by gendered violence (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012), which has increased dramatically as confinement puts more pressure on households. This makes it even more important that the data collected in health crises is disaggregated in gender, sex, disability, age and race, in order to identify groups that are particularly vulnerable and need more support. FEDURP, in coordination with Freetown City Council will start collecting data about the consequences of COVID-19 on informal settlements. “We know gender-based violence is happening and we want to have the information to prove it, sensitise the community and find solutions,” said Yirah on a WhatsApp (June 8, 2020). In Valparaíso, although community leaders do not yet have the statistics, they are aware of its rise. “We know that these circumstances create a rise in domestic violence, which is already a reality in our community,” said Maria on Facebook Messenger (April 24, 2020).

4. Difficulties accessing water and sanitation heighten health crisis: Access to drinking water is limited across all three communities to different degrees. The fact that dwellers are spending more time in the settlement and that children are not in school means that the management of water – already difficult to ration – is even harder in a context where hygiene is key. Research shows how women play a key role managing water in informal settlements (Butcher, 2019) and develop creative strategies to do housework activities with limited access (Ossul-Vermehren, 2019). In Freetown’s settlements, paid water points are even more difficult to access for older and disabled women, who tend to have lower income. Physical access is also an issue, as is sexual violence against women, in particular disabled women and girls, by water controllers (as was documented by participants last year through participatory photography). The decrease in disposable income has meant that buying water has become harder, which is why FEDURP has been distributing water to disabled and older residents, most of whom are women.

Final remarks

This piece has focused specifically on the effects of COVID-19 on female and disabled residents of informal settlements. It has attempted to briefly highlight data available on gender and disability, taking into consideration that the pandemic is still unfolding and that there is limited research on the ground. It highlights the importance of disaggregating data by gender and sex, age, disability and race, with the aim of making visible the structural inequalities faced by specific groups. It has also offered information emerging from online conversations with communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia on the pressing issues faced by dwellers, along with specific initiatives and the ways in which communities are addressing these issues.

The cases have highlighted women’s roles as carers of children, older people and increasingly, of the ill, in setting up community kitchens, managing scarce water resources, with less access to income and vulnerability to gender-based violence, especially if they are disabled. While it is clear that women are more vulnerable during COVID-19, they are also key actors in managing the crisis in informal settlements. If we are to learn from previous health crises, the knowledge and experience of women and disabled women needs to be put at the centre of international and national health responses.

Photo of authorIgnacia Ossul-Vermehren is a research fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London. She holds a PhD in Development Planning and a MSc in Social Development Practice from the same department. Additionally, she is interested in visual and participatory methods and how it can bring about social change (@thread project_).


[i] The additive approach explains accumulation of two or more intersecting identities’ experiences. It is the distinctive form of oppression associated with each subordinate identity summed together. Alternatively, an intersecting approach examines how a person’s subordinate identities interact in a synergistic way, which may lead to specific forms of oppression rather than doubling the mainstream disadvantage.

[ii] From the DFID-funded research in collaboration with Global Disability Innovation Hub, DPU-UCL research “AT: Community-led solutions in informal settlements” in Banjarmasin and Freetown (2019-2021) and Becas Chile-funded research “The Politics of Home-Making” (2012-2018) in Valparaíso, both conducted at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London.

[iii] The Development Planning Unit is a department at University College London. It conducts world-leading research and postgraduate teaching that helps to build the capacity of national governments, local authorities, NGOs, aid agencies and businesses working towards socially just and sustainable development in the global south.