Back in the Kitchen
Caregiving Women Are Feeling the Strain During the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Claire Gasamagera

Claire Gasamagera

In Rwanda, where I grew up, when my grandmother was making an argument, my grandfather ordered her to “go back in the kitchen with the kids,” and she did. As a young woman, I grew up resenting the idea of being stuck in the kitchen with the kids. Here I am in shock, realizing that, because of COVID-19 pandemic, we are back in the kitchen with the kids.

In the same way that the AIDS epidemic affected women in different and often more punishing ways than men around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting women differently. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many women out of public spaces, exacerbated women’s mental stresses and increased domestic violence against women.

COVID-19 forced women out of public spaces
In January 2020, for the first time in the history of the United States, the number of women in the workplace was higher than that of men. Two months later, COVID-19 hit and erased everything. In the United States, to this date 2.3 million women have left the workforce compared to only 1.8 million men. The unemployment rate of white women is at 5.1% and that of black women at 8.5%. I was among the first to be laid off. I am not alone; the COVID pandemic is making it impossible for women to stay in their jobs. We are back in the kitchen.

In fact, getting out of the kitchen and being around men had always been my motivation to study and work hard. Also, growing up, I was and I am still intrigued and attracted by physical differences between me and men. I aspire to be able to do what they do.
Then when I moved to the States, I became more conscious of identities that I had long lived with—a woman, black, living with HIV—and how the workplace understood these identities. I found work with many different men; I loved the diversity. I prided myself in my ability to show up at work in a nice office in the United States, carrying along with me all the identities handed to me to work with men from different backgrounds. I have always told men “do not judge me by my feminine package, judge me by my content.” I did succeed in competing with men, and particularly with white men, and I was proud.

Immediately after becoming a mom of two in fewer than two years, everything started scrambling. Navigating motherhood disrupted my pride: I needed more days off, more help from men in my job….

Also, certain realities hit me. American mothers are on their own. Someone cannot leave a child with a neighbor or send kids to play in the backyard with neighbors’ kids like we do in Africa. A child in Africa belongs to the village, which gives Mom some time off. Motherhood in America is a lonely and complicated journey.

Indeed, when it comes to black women things get tougher. First of all black mothers are considered unable to provide proper care, guidance and support to their children, and thus have to be surveilled. Child Protective Services investigates 1 in 3 black children for abuse or neglect. As a result, we black mothers live in a constant state of fear of CPS taking away our children, with the government willing to pay billions of dollars to have strangers raise our children in foster care. In addition to that, black mothers have a responsibility to warn their kids early on about society’s racial biases and police brutalities targeting black people.
On top of all these motherhood-related challenges, I am a black immigrant woman living with HIV. According to Trump during his campaign rallies, I am “an alien coming to United States with diseases” making “anchor babies.”

Though the pressure was huge, I was determined to be a working mom. I would sleep two hours and show up to work wearing a pacifier in the place of employee card. It was messy and stressful, but I was making progress.

Then I was stunned by how in America women with babies are limited in public spaces. While I was not satisfied that as a woman living with HIV I could not breastfeed, the rest of women could not breastfeed in public. Where I come from breastfeeding is a noble activity; thus moms breastfeed in public, and nobody cares.

At the same time, I was surprised that our own HIV community was not prepared for women living with HIV with babies. Our HIV community was hit hard by the pandemic, our losses, and still faces HIV and AIDS-related stigma, discrimination and criminalization. Thus, we are still struggling to shift from a state of constant emergency planning to long-term planning. As our community grows older, we often forget little things, such as accommodating mothers living with HIV with babies.

All the time, as women living with HIV with babies, we are encouraged to be part of HIV planning councils and advisory boards, yet there is no plan for childcare. When it comes to national gatherings, conference venues have no places to change a baby, no daycare, no nursing room. I have been outraged, as I have been in the HIV activism since I was a teenager and I was welcomed only because then I did not have a baby.

Daycare at the USCHA: Charles (holding baby London) with husband Gavin, and Claire, holding Aaron, Jr., and Aaron Sr., holding Calvin. Photo courtesy C. Gasamagera

To my surprise, some of my fellow women living with HIV discouraged me to pursue my advocacy by telling me, “Claire, stay home with your kids; take a break until your kids are grown up. We did the same thing.” For me, it translated into my mother tongue as “go back in the kitchen with the kids,” just like my grandfather silenced my grandmother. I stood my ground and insisted that the presence of women living with HIV with babies matters. My argument was simple: HIV treatment works , Undetectable equals Untransmittable, we are having sex and living out loud. As people living with HIV we are no longer preoccupied by dying, and some of us are making or raising babies. I won my argument, and, at the last United States Conference on HIV/AIDS, I brought my kids and we had a beautiful daycare. Big thanks to The Well Project and Prevention Access Campaign for their support, as my family was able to attend the last in-person USCHA. The daycare was beneficial for both moms and men with children at the conference. I refused the status quo and challenged everybody. Big thanks to Paul Kawata of NMAC for listening and responding.

COVID-19 exacerbated women’s mental stresses
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women earned less than men and carried the burden of household chores and childcare. Pre-COVID, a CDC study revealed that 1 in 10 women in United States have experienced symptoms of severe depression. Things got worse with the COVID19 pandemic; our caregiving responsibilities have increased and our income has disappeared. Schools and daycares are closed, and now we are full-time moms, housemaids, spouses, teachers, kids’ playmates, nurses, counselors and gig workers. We are breaking down and feel unheard and underappreciated. Our mental health status has been shaken.

Out of desperation, in search of an attentive listening ear, women in New York have set up a phone line for primal screaming. Women across the country are welcome to call and just scream or cry while leaving a message. The number, by the way, is: (212) 556-3800
The same way back in the AIDS epidemic women held together families and communities affected by HIV while struggling with their own HIV diagnosis and trauma, women are once again holding together grieving families and communities affected by COVID-19 around the nation. Yet caregiving responsibilities put women at risk of contracting COVID-19. The few women who are still working are in industries exposing themselves to COVID19. As women living with HIV, we are still holding together our own HIV community and grieving the loss of many trailblazers, like my American mother and mentor, the Queen Deloris Dockrey. We are stressed out by the whole COVID19 pandemic crisis without seeing any end to this crisis in the near future.

COVID19 increased domestic violence
The CDC reports that 1 in 4 women have experienced at least one form of domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

With the COVID-19 crisis, things got worse. In a recently launched campaign to eradicate domestic violence, the UN Women called domestic violence the shadow pandemic .
For instance, COVID-19-related lockdowns are essential in halting the spread of the virus, yet they create perfect conditions for domestic violence. As a result of being stuck home 24/7 with kids and spouses, more women are experiencing domestic violence and intimate partner violence.

Not all stress rises to the level of violence, but it can still be hard for couples. In my family, things got out of hand, too; arguments became heated often. Fortunately, my family started working with a family therapist to keep our home together and it is working.

In few words, we women in the COVID-19 pandemic are hanging on a prayer.

So, what now?

At an individual level: First, as women, we must reevaluate our goals and redesign each day according to our priorities. We cannot do everything. We must seek help whenever we need it. We are not superwomen. We need help and we deserve a mental and physical break.

Second, our men—our brothers, sons and spouses—have to acknowledge that we are suffering and commit to help us out with caregiving responsibilities.

At a community level: As women living with HIV, we must stay virtually connected, check in on each other and make sure that no one is left behind. In our online gatherings, we must share and transfer knowledge and skills.

At a national level: We must organize to vote in the 2022 Congressional elections and prepare for Biden’s reelection. Unlike President Trump who in his reelection campaign was promising “suburban women, I will bring back your husbands’ jobs,” President Biden is putting in place policies friendly to women and families, policies like expanding Medicaid and Obamacare and increasing the child tax credit, to name few.

We must put the Biden administration to work and go big in terms of the social safety net for families. We are not crying for things to go back to “normal,” as you can see from my description of my then-chaotic normal as a mom. We need a better normal where women’s rights and needs are met.

Fellow women, no matter how overwhelmed we feel right now, we must always remember that we live in times of advanced science and technology, as well as increased women’s rights. are the first generation of women in human history to have easier lives compared to women who came before us. Thus, we must stay reassured that we will survive!

Happy Women’s Month!

Tuyishime Claire Gasamagera is an author, storyteller, activist, advocate, and a multilingual journalist reporting on social and racial justice, equal human rights and access to healthcare. Claire is a contributor to different HIV /AIDS magazines. She is the winner of the 2019 A&U Magazine Christopher Hewitt Award for Nonfiction. Her writing is informed by her activism and lived experiences. Claire was born with HIV in 1983 and survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Her work has been published by, A&U, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance Key Correspondents, Voice of Africa, and AllAfrica.