Understanding COVID-19’s gendered impact

Early studies on COVID-19 show that the virus is killing more men. However, the global impact on women’s health is far more disproportionate. It is vital for leaders around the world to acknowledge and address the way the pandemic has greatly impacted women.

For many women who are survivors of domestic violence, lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders mean they are trapped at home with their abusers with virtually no escape or access to help. Emerging data is showing that violence against women and girls is increasing. As lockdowns continue in effect around the world, the immediate safety of women is of major concern. 

According to a recent UN Report, France has seen a 30 percent increase in reports of domestic violence since their lockdown started on March 17th. Argentina has seen a 25 percent increase in emergency calls for domestic violence since their lockdown on March 20th. Hotlines in Cyprus and Singapore have had an increase in calls of 30 and 33 percent, respectively. While under quarantine, a police station in Wuhan received 3 times the number of usual calls.

Many governments have created and provided new opportunities to provide refuge and safety to victims of domestic violence. France has repurposed thousands of hotel rooms for those escaping abusive households. Argentinian pharmacies have been declared a safe space for anyone to report abuse. Columbia has committed to continuing to provide virtual services such as legal and psychological advice. Spain is providing an instant messaging service with psychological advice to survivors of violence. Governments should follow the lead of these countries in providing aid and support to those in abusive situations in the wake of Covid-19 stay at home orders. 

Women also face an increased threat and insecurity in their right to housing and property. Many women still face disadvantages and legal barriers to property and land ownership in almost 40 percent of countries. With social distancing and lockdown orders, unstable housing situations dependent on male relatives and husbands threaten the safety of many women. Previous epidemics such as the AIDs crisis saw many widows and orphans left homeless after losing property while tackling their own health problems. 

For example, according to the World Bank, widows in Kenya have been cast out of homes during social distancing by those who do not see them as part of the family and as an extra financial and social burden in a time of already increased hardship. 

As industries across all sectors got hit by the sudden halt of the pandemic, women around the world are more vulnerable from unemployment and economic insecurity. The same UN report on COVID-19’s impact on women notes that, “nearly 60 percent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty.” These are industries dominated by women such as garment workers and caregivers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost 60 percent of all jobs eliminated in the first wave of the pandemic were held by women. 

Across Asia, garment workers, who are primarily women, have been laid off and are unable to afford food or rent. In Bangladesh, more than one million garment workers have been left without work, 80 percent of whom are women. Many clothing brands and retailers amidst cancelled orders and sitting with surplus stock have left garment workers without any support.

Healthcare assistants and professionals are still in need around the world, and while these jobs are in high demand and dominated by women, they place women at a higher risk of exposure to the virus. According to collaborative data between the UN and WHO, 88 percent of personal care workers and 69 percent of health professionals around the world are women. However, in some countries, women health care workers are less protected and facing more exposure, such as Spain’s female health care professionals who have twice the number of infections as their male counterparts. 

Domestically, caregiving for young children and the elderly unproportionately falls onto women within families. Women’s total unpaid contribution to all kinds of care estimates to be equivalent to $11 trillion. In many developing countries, young girls, who are often expected to do household chores, are faced with dropping out of school at disproportionate rates as their male counterparts who do not spend the same number of hours on domestic work.

Women around the world also work in the unregulated, unprotected, and criminalized industry of sex work. People employeed in sex work, such as poor women, women of color, trans women, and other members of the LGBTQ community, are often at the economic and societial margins. With unemployement skyrocketing, it is likely that more people will turn to sex work to survive. However sex workers are at an increased risk of exposure if they continue to work, and a new report from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe notes that they often are excluded from benefits or protections from government pandemic response and recovery plans.

Countries need to be considerate and look to female leadership when developing recovery and aid plans as they try to rebuild and reopen society. Going forward, workers in the informal sector especially will need direct support by governments providing loans and putting cash in the hands of feminized sectors and women-run businesses. Informal workers need to be granted basic social protections by their governments.

Instead, many government leaders across the globe have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to backslide the reproductive rights of women. In the U.S. and Europe, access to abortions have been reduced or even postponed entirely until after restrictions have passed. Many states have deemed abortions as “non-essential” and put the lives of countless women in danger, especially women living in poverty and undocumented women with already limited access to healthcare. International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network Regional Director Caroline Hickson said that, “while the pandemic is impacting every aspect of our lives, it should not be used as an excuse to undermine women’s rights to make decisions regarding their reproductive and health rights.”

Restrictions have also been placed on access to contraception, menstrual products, and maternal health. In India, menstrual hygiene products were at first not considered essential products by the state government. Access to contraception will quickly decline as most manufacturing is done across Asia in factories that are shutting down. Supply lines are being severed and will leave many developing and rural communities without access to any form of birth control for months.

The world can learn by looking at past epidemics such as HIV-AIDS, SARS, H1-N1, and Ebola to see just how the most marginalized have been affected the most time and time again. COVID-19 has only exacerbated and deepened the divide between the most vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Our world is not constructed to be equal or gender-blind, and COVID-19 is exploiting every weakness and vulnerability of our existing systems. The world’s response needs to recognize this by taking gender and the lives of women into account. 

While presenting UN research on COVID-19’s gender impact, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “I urge governments to put women and girls at the center of their efforts to recover from COVID-19. That starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power.” 

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