The State of Gender Equality in a Global Pandemic
This article was written by Anshu Choudhary from India. Anshu worked on special projects for the Launch gURLs’ team and was vital in helping us prepare for the Girl Boss Pilot .
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives in the most unimaginable ways possible. The risks posed by the pandemic are influenced by one’s ability to safeguard oneself against the virus, which is highly influenced by socioeconomic status. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting women and girls all over the world due to gender inequalities.
The lockdown has resulted in many people in the formal sector having to work from home. Recently, there were some stories published online describing the benefits of global lockdown, for example, allowing people to be creative with cooking or innovating new dimensions at work. According to the Atlantic, when people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, they point to William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton as examples of exceptional work created during a plague. But, the lockdown and working from home is not exciting for everyone nor is it always productive, especially women. After all, neither Shakespeare nor Newton had child-care responsibilities.
COVID-19 hit us in times where policies and public health efforts have not addressed the gendered impact of disease outbreaks. The health institutions and governments most affected by the pandemic lack the intense gender analysis needed to understand the impacts of the virus on women. Understanding the extent to which the disease affects women and men differently is a fundamental step in recognizing the primary and secondary effects of a health emergency on individuals in order to create effective, equitable policies and interventions. According to a Policy Brief from the United Nations, “the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic”.
This blog focuses on the health of women and women’s right to analyse the impact of the pandemic on women and girls globally:
- Surveys conducted by UN Women show that COVID-19 has gendered effects in the Asia and Pacific regions. It was revealed that fewer women are receiving information to prepare for COVID-19 due to differences in cell phone ownership, access to the internet, and lower educational attainments. These surveys also pointed out that this pandemic is disproportionately affecting women’s mental and emotional health. Women have been doing more unpaid care and domestic work, as well as suffering more from ongoing job and income losses. Additionally, the effects of lockdown on gender-based violence have led to higher rates of stress among women. For example, in China’s Jianli County, the local police station received 162 reports of intimate partner violence in February—three times what was reported in February 2019. A recent report in the New York Times used data trends across China, Europe and the United States indicating an alarming increase in domestic violence cases. The report further predicts that with the damaging impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, domestic violence is set to become much more frequent.
- Recent evidence suggests that more men than women are dying as a result of COVID-19, potentially due to sex-based, gendered, and immunological factors. However, researchers warn that information on sex-disaggregated data is incomplete globally and should be treated with caution. The problem is not only about collecting the new data but the complacency in how we deal with the data we already have. Curating targeted data will prevent us from consuming this half-baked data which can prove to be ineffective for comprehensive relief efforts by civil society organizations and govt. policy interventions. There is an urgent need to capture the lived experiences of women considering the intersectional perspective rather than quantifying them in numbers which lacks the complete picture about the damaging impact of the crisis.
- As we learn more about the impact of the pandemic on women, it’s becoming apparent that there are particular sub-groups of women who are more vulnerable specifically those engaged in the healthcare industry. For example, women make up 70% of health-care workers globally and 80% of nurses in most regions. As a result, many women have close and prolonged contact with sick patients. It is therefore not very surprising that 72% and 66% of female workers are infected in Spain and Italy respectively.
- In countries where access to healthcare requires out-of-pocket payments or insurance, women from the poorest and most marginalized groups are most likely to be deprived of vital care. In the USA in 2018, more than one third (34.7%) of Hispanic women in the poorest quintile lacked access to health insurance, compared to 3.6% of white women in the richest quintile. This fact amplifies the intersectional disparities faced by women who are already discriminated against, in light of COVID-19.
Women’s rights and the fight for equality
- Experts have warned that the pandemic may set gender equality back by decades. Melinda Gates argues that ignoring effects of COVID-19 on women can cost the global GDP a whopping $5tn by 2030. She emphasizes that a four-year delay in programs promoting gender equality, advancing women’s digital, and financial inclusion can further these effects. Gates calls on policymakers to use this opportunity to overhaul the public systems to allow governments to build “more prosperous, more prepared and more equal” countries.
- It is no surprise that COVID-19 is bringing the world economy to a global slowdown which is going to be very different from the past recessions. The Internal Labour Organization has estimated that full or partial lockdown measures are affecting almost 2.7 billion workers, which represent around 81% of the world’s workforce. The International Monetary Fund projects a significant contraction of global output in 2020. From past experiences and emerging trends, it is evident that this global recession will lead to a prolonged dip in women’s incomes and labour force participation. “With compounded impacts for women already living in poverty”, this will have damaging implications on women’s right to work across the world.
- Girls’ right to education is facing much bigger challenges. A report by the Malala Fund on girls’ education and COVID-19 titled “Girls’ education and COVID-19: What past shocks can teach us about mitigating the impact of pandemics” estimates that 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the crisis has passed. In the efforts to slow down the transmission of COVID-19, almost 90% of the world’s countries have shut down their schools. Researchers estimate that adolescent mothers in the African subcontinent are less likely to return to school following the pandemic and invest less in the education or health of their children.
- Over 250 million children are out of school in Africa due to the lockdown since April 2020, with no access to continued learning and teaching facilities across the continent. Dr. Mahama Ouedraogo, Director, Human Resources, Science & Technology Department at the African Union Commission, highlighted that “with shuttered schools, African girls are at increased risk abuse, sexual violence, trafficking, social exclusion and forced labour.” Many experts are worried that with schools being shut down, many girls had to support their families, turning to unpaid domestic work and being exposed to transactional sex and/or prostitution.
This, compounded with the lack of access to education many young girls face, has the potential to lead to major setbacks in the achievements of gender equality in past decades. This could lead us to a future where these girls are even more disadvantaged, causing lasting damage not only to these girls but to newer generations.
What should be done to resolve these challenges?
- Have more women in decision making roles
UN Security Council resolution 2242 (2015) was one of the first Council resolutions to recognize health pandemics as part of the peace and security landscape, and highlight “the need for the principles of prevention, protection and equal participation and leadership of women to be part of all responses”. However, the resolution is yet to be implemented in totality by the governments across the world. Women community representatives and women organizations need to be at the heart of COVID-19 response. Women, need to have a role in decision making, designing, and implementing socio-economic road maps for recovering from the pandemic. This will assist in transforming our societies into more equitable ones by mitigating the inequalities of unpaid emotional labor and the ill effects of being out of school on young girls.
- Encourage safe-spaces for girls to interact
According to a recent working paper by Prof. Oriana Bandiera, Markus Goldstein and others released by World Bank analyses the impact of “girls’ club” in villages in Sierra Leone where women frequently experience sexual violence and face economic disadvantages. These girl clubs created safe spaces for young adult girls to gather and develop skills. The analysis focused on the mechanisms through which trauma impacts the economic stability of young women and shows how interventions during times of crisis can improve their lives. Networking can prove to be a shock absorber of the ill effects of the pandemic and will encourage participation among women to design local solutions to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Understanding that we all are in this together and using masks is the first step. The next is including the voices of women and girls affected by the pandemic to paint a full picture of the situation in the mainstream media. These voices must be emphasized not just in the form of advocacy at the global level, but through assisting women and girls in designing local solutions to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. The implementation of these solutions must be supported by governments, transnational organizations and civil society groups to achieve their full potential. This pandemic can be turned into an opportunity to overhaul inequalities only if girls and women are seen as part of the solution to the challenges this pandemic brings.