COVID-19: A Gender-Biased Pandemic

By: Naheed Maalik

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2020 — a year that has so far been cruel, with its main feature being a pandemic that has taken away lives, health — both physical and mental — and livelihoods.

On top of being an invincible force of destruction, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, with gender being a severely affected area. While the pandemic and its general social and economic impacts have created a global crisis unparalleled in recent history, gender inequality has made women around the world more vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis.

The irony is that 2020 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and was intended as a ground-breaking year for gender equality by the UN. Instead, with COVID-19, even the limited gains made in the past are at risk of being lost.

Women and girls across the world are facing a greater negative impact in multiple areas, mainly health, economics, family, and security, simply by virtue of their sex.

[Related: Three Ways to Support Women at Your Workplace]

Fighting on many fronts.

Let’s start with health.

According to the UN policy brief “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women,” globally, women make up to 70% of the health workforce and are more likely to be front-line health workers, especially nurses, midwives, and community health workers. They are also the majority of health facility service-staff in jobs in cleaning, laundry, and catering, and as such, they are more likely to be exposed to the virus.

A couple of statistics to showcase this: Out of the total 7,329 healthcare workers infected by COVID-19 in Spain, 72% were women, compared to 28% men. Similarly, in Italy, out of 10,657 infected healthcare workers, women outnumbered men, 66% to 34%.

While women are at the forefront of this pandemic vs. humanity battle, women’s reproductive health services characterized as “non-essential” are being cut in many countries. Access to contraception, maternal health, menstrual hygiene products, and abortion services have reduced as the pressure of COVID-19 grows on health systems. Lack of these resources may result in increased rates of unwanted pregnancies and maternal mortality.

A recent UNFPA report has forecast approximately seven million unwanted pregnancies globally, as women struggle to access reproductive and non-COVID healthcare services. In many places, health facilities are closing or limiting services; there is a shortage of clinical staff to provide family planning counseling and a shortage of contraceptives due to supply chain disruptions. Or, women are simply refraining from visiting health facilities due to movement restrictions or out of fear of COVID-19 exposure.

This situation is more pronounced in low and middle-income countries, where gender inequality is already more present in different forms. Unwanted pregnancies, poverty, and unreliable healthcare services put not only the women, but also their unborn babies, at risk.

Even practicing the recommended good hygiene practices — such as frequent hand-washing and adequate water and sanitation services that are essential to prevent COVID-19 and break the chain of transmission — are difficult to access for women in poor countries and refugee camps. Running water and sanitation are still not uniformly available across the developing world, and in many such societies, women are not able to freely and securely access public sanitation facilities.

An example are camps hosting asylum seekers on the Greek islands, where cooking, bathing, and bathroom facilities are often shared or inaccessible, with one latrine for every 160 people and one water tap for every 1,300 residents. Refugees International found that most women and girls feared using a latrine or one of the few water taps where hand-washing was possible, explaining that because the police force is virtually non-existent, and some latrines do not have lights or locks, they were at risk of being harassed or attacked when using them.

Female economics.

The general impact of COVID-19 across the global economy is hard-hitting, with foreseeable profound consequences in the coming years. Businesses across the world are closing or scaling back operations, and millions have or will lose their jobs and livelihoods.

Globally, women earn less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in informal job sectors. They have less access to social protection mechanisms and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shock is less than that of men and the effect of unemployment that much greater.

These impacts will also potentially roll back the gains made in female labor force participation, limiting women’s ability to support themselves and their families, especially for single-parent households. In addition, closures of schools and daycare centers have massively increased childcare needs, which has a large impact on working mothers. As unpaid care burdens increase, livelihood opportunities decrease.

The employment drop related to social distancing measures has affected sectors with high female employment, like retail, tourism, and hospitality; according to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 60% of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of pandemic cuts were held by women. As COVID-19 spread across Asia, women bore the brunt of widespread job cuts, with sectors dominated by women workers, including textiles and the service industry, to be the first hit.

In developing economies, up to 70% of women’s employment is in the informal economy, with few protections against dismissal or paid sick leave. In Bangladesh, more than a million garment workers have been laid off, 80% of them women. Resulting financial challenges also expose women to increased risk of exploitation and abuse, where they are more likely to take on high-risk work for their economic survival.

The current economic uncertainty can also potentially hinder girls’ access to education, particularly those living in low-income countries. School closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although important to protect public health, can have lasting negative consequences for girls. Past experience shows that once girls are taken out of school for any reason in some societies, they are both less likely than boys to engage in homeschooling and to ever re-enroll.

[Related: We Can Reshape the Global Economy for Everyone]

Working from home has consequences for women.

Women around the world typically spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work. COVID-19 has only made matters worse. Women’s unpaid care work has long been a driver of inequality, having a direct link to pay inequality, lower income, poorer education outcomes, and physical and mental health issues.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation for women across the globe, it has also put a spotlight on the ways in which the daily functioning of families, communities, and the formal economy are dependent on this invisible work.

According to UNESCO, 1.52 billion students (87%) and over 60 million teachers are now home as COVID-19 school closures expand. As formal and informal supply of childcare declines, the demand for unpaid childcare provision is falling more heavily on women, not only because of the existing structure of the workforce, but also because of social norms.

The situation is especially problematic for single parents, and around the world there are far more single mothers than single fathers. No schools or babysitters means more hours spent caring for and educating children.

Shutdowns also create more housework and restaurants closures — meaning more cooking at home. More time inside increases the need to clean the house, and having a partner doesn’t necessarily equate to equal help with these responsibilities.

For decades, women in heterosexual couples have done the majority of this unpaid work — even when they out-earn their husbands. Data from 2015 analyzed by U.K.’s Office for National Statistics and the 2018 American Time Use Survey highlights a stark imbalance in unpaid housework between women and men.

This unequal division of labor hasn’t changed much since the onset of COVID-19. Even though men are spending more time at home than before, women are still reporting doing more of the housework.

Women of all ages also provide the bulk of unpaid care for older persons in the family, and with more worry about elderly parents, looking after their well-being and keeping them safe is an additional chore for many women around the world.

This greater share of unpaid work at home is affecting women’s career progression and future earning potential, as it comes at the cost of the paid work they could be doing instead.

An example is the drop noticed in the number of research article submissions by women academics in the UK. In April, Dr Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, posted on Twitter:

Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month, never seen anything like it.

The response was an outpouring of recognition from frustrated female academics, saying they were barely coping with childcare and work during the COVID-19 lockdown. Meanwhile, at another leading research publication, the Comparative Political Studies journal, submissions from men were up almost 50% in April, according to its co-editor, David Samuels.

Having articles published in academic journals is key to being promoted at many universities, and additional childcare, caring for older family members, and an increase in home care duties are slowing up female researchers far more than their male colleagues.

No “sheltering” from domestic violence.

Gender-based violence typically increases during a crisis — whether economic, conflict, or disease outbreaks — and COVID-19 is no different. Violence against women has increased globally as pre-existing gender inequalities combine with economic stress and restricted movement and social isolation measures. Women are in isolation at home with their abusers, while being cut off from normal support services.

While it is too early for comprehensive data, there are already surges being reported upwards of 25% in countries with reporting systems in place. These numbers are also likely to reflect only the worst cases, as without access to private spaces and resources, many women will struggle to make a call or to seek help online. At the same time, support services are struggling, have shifted priorities, or are otherwise unable to help due to lockdown or reallocation of resources.

Some statistics so far: In France, reports of domestic violence increased by 30% since lockdown, and increased cases of domestic violence and demand for shelter have been consistently reported from Canada, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US. Domestic violence hotlines around the globe reported a steep rise in calls following lockdown. One police station near Wuhan, China received three times the usual call volume when the province was under quarantine. Similar patterns have been reported in Kosovo, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Cyprus, and Singapore, with an average increase of 35% in calls to helplines.

A UNFPA assessment describes how the pandemic is leading to more gender-based violence; programs to prevent violence and provide services, care, and support to survivors are disrupted and women are locked inside as households endure stressors like economic turmoil.

Ghadeer Mohammed Ibrahim Qara Bulad, director of the Women’s Development Project at the Islamic Charitable Association, which works with UNFPA in Homs, Syria, said:

During the curfew period, I have met a lot of woman who face violence by their husbands. It has clearly increased.

While victims find themselves isolated in violent homes, without access to resources or friend and family networks, abusers could experience heightened financial pressures and stress, increase their consumption of alcohol or drugs, and purchase or hoard guns as an emergency measure.

As businesses are realizing that working from home and flexible hours work just as well as being in the office for eight hours a day, flexible work arrangements are likely to persist, potentially providing more career opportunities for women. Flexible work can also potentially lead to a more balanced work-life balance and division of labor over time for both men and women.

During the lockdown period, many men also shared responsibility for home and childcare. In some countries and cultures, this may help erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in house work and childcare.

[Related: Retirement Planning for Dual-Income Households]

Naheed Maalik is a marketing and communications professional and has managed the functions for education and not-for-profit institutions in South Asia and the Middle East for over 15 years. She holds a Chartered Marketer certification from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), UK and currently runs a communications agency in Dubai, UAE. This article originally appeared on the IWI website, where she works as a volunteer journalist.

Originally published at

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