Sitting alone in her modest hut under the dim light of the lamp in the courtyard, Zeinab seems lost in her thoughts. Despite being in her forties, she has the haggard look of a woman in her fifties. As she toys with her smartphone, the blue light from the screen reflects on her tired face, revealing the harsh marks that the past couple of years have left on her.
Zeinab, a widow and mother of four, has been struggling, like many others in her situation, to overcome the numerous challenges that the containment measures of the Covid-19 pandemic have forced upon her. The nightly curfew mandated by the government has reduced her income by 70 percent, and state negligence, officials’ bias, and lack of transparency have prevented her from benefitting from welfare programs designed to assist people like her.
Zeinab is a property guard in Tevragh Zeina, the most affluent area in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Her main job is unpaid; it entails her and her family moving from one property to the next and staying on the grounds to guard it against trespassers until construction work is completed and a mansion is erected.
Although far from ideal, her job provides her with relative stability and gives her a roof over her head without having to worry about rent or water and electricity bills. As a source of income, Zeinab prepares “couscous,” a traditional Mauritanian dish, and sells it to people going home at night at the famous City Samar crossroads in Nouakchott. Around midnight, she comes home to her children with about 15 dollars of hard-earned money.
Everything changed for Zeinab when the first case of Covid-19 was registered in March 2020. Curfew was constantly enforced and lifted and working hours were continuously shifting. In July 2020, the government decided to increase curfew hours in an attempt to deter a third wave of the virus, which caused Zeinab to lose one-third of her daily income.
Because of the curfew, Zeinab was forced to start selling her couscous at 4 in the afternoon instead of 8 in the evening, consequently leading to the loss of many of her customers who prefer eating their couscous at night. Other customers became reluctant to buy traditional meals from street vendors altogether; they avoided contact with vendors displaying their merchandise at street sides in the scorching summer heat and opted instead for homemade food.
Female couscousiéres represent a large percentage of the vendors working in this particular sector of the informal economy, which is not subject to taxation or government monitoring, nor is included in the country’s Gross National Income index despite comprising almost 80 percent of Mauritania’s economy.
Most of the labor working in informal sectors of the economy operate outside the jurisdiction of the Labor Department which increases their vulnerability, especially in the country’s current volatile economic situation characterized by scarcity of raw materials, political instability, and dependence on international aid.
Two Mauritanian leaders, however, are suggesting solutions to help Zeinab and other female breadwinners survive the economic costs of Covid-19. Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, president of the Progressive National Assembly Party, and Biram Dah Abeid, politician and human rights advocate, believe that governmental welfare programs suffer from a lack of transparency and require stricter control, especially over the direct disbursement of monetary funds.
The government’s lack of transparency, indifference to the plight of women working in informal sectors, and repeated failure to consult them when deciding on containment measures make it increasingly hard for these women to survive the pandemic, especially when coupled with a lack of official data and statistics on the conditions of hundreds of working Mauritanian women. Indeed, having a transparent strategy in place in conjunction with carefully controlled government intervention programs is likely to increase economic wealth and protect the livelihoods of many female breadwinners struggling throughout the pandemic.
If Zeinab and thousands of other Mauritanian women were provided better opportunities to work and were protected by laws that respected their human dignity, national wealth would see an increase of about 19 percent as a result – especially if gender equality itself was promoted.
Perhaps Zeinab wouldn’t be able to make much sense of the numbers and statistics in the World Bank’s economic report on Mauritania, but she does know what it means to have a decent living for herself and her children. Through bitter experiences, she has become painfully aware that she should not wait for her government to save her, but rather knows that she must fight against all odds to survive no matter what.
Raby Idoumou is a Mauritanian writer and journalist, and his work is published at La Vision platform. Follow him on Twitter @Rabyidoumou5.