The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe, brutally exposing the fault lines in our healthcare and economic infrastructure, institutions and social safety nets. As is often the case with most crises, the poorest and the most vulnerable groups have been impacted the worst. Even as every facet of the pandemic is shrouded in deep uncertainty, one aspect that is absolutely certain is its disproportionate impact on the lives and livelihoods of women.
Women, Covid-19 and health
Women account for about 70%
of the health sector workforce globally. As depicted by the graph below, the percentage of female frontline workers (nurses, in particular) is higher than males across the world.
Graph 1: Percentage of male and female nurses
Source: Boniol et al.
Prevailing gender norms, and the predominant role of women as caregivers within families and as frontline healthcare workers significantly increases their likelihood of getting infected by the virus. This fact mirrors the trends
witnessed during previous disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika. Secondly, the massive strain and sustained pressure of the pandemic on the healthcare infrastructure is likely to have sharp knock-on effects on the reproductive and sexual health of women. Provision of services and commodities associated with family planning and menstrual health is likely to be adversely impacted as supply chains undergo disruptions. While evidence corroborating the same has been limited so far, preliminary data
indicates a significant reduction in access to sexual and reproductive health on account of the pandemic. Another worrying implication of Covid-19 is associated with its impact on maternal health. As women stay away from medical facilities due to quarantine restrictions or misconceptions about virus transmission, receiving adequate maternal care is likely to become a major challenge. A surge in MMR (maternal mortality ratio) was recorded
during and after the Ebola outbreak Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone for precisely the same reasons.
In order to prevent the catastrophic collateral effects of the pandemic on women’s health, policymakers across nations must prioritise women’s healthcare needs and ensure that they are attended to, in all forms. As highlighted
by the WHO, sexual and reproductive health should be regarded 'essential' and women, in particular, should be allowed to have options regarding safe access to contraception and abortion.
A shadow pandemic
The adverse effects of the pandemic on women’s health are not just confined to physical health but also extend to mental health, abuse and trauma. UN Women recently described gender-based violence during Covid-19 as a “shadow pandemic”
. Lockdown measures in most countries have isolated women with abusive partners. At the same time, with resources and services being repurposed for Covid response, support from shelters, helplines and police authorities is also limited. It is estimated
that domestic violence cases have increased by 20% globally during the lockdown, creating a parallel pandemic.
The menace of domestic violence predates the pandemic and requires coordinated, sustained action. However, certain emergency measures must be implemented immediately to safeguard women. Countries such as France, Norway and Germany have implemented some ingenious solutions to combat the parallel pandemic. Supermarkets and pharmacies have become safe “go-to” spaces
for women where the utterance of a code word (“MASK 19”) signals an urgent request for protection from domestic abusers. With domestic violence shelters at peak capacity in many of these countries, several hotels have been re-tasked
to provide emergency accommodation to women.
School closures widening the education gender divide
Countries all over the world have implemented nationwide school closures to combat the pandemic, impacting over 1.5 billion
children and youth, half of whom are girls. Evidence
from previous crises shows that the number of girls dropping out of schools increases the longer they stay shut. A study
showed that girls in Sierra Leone were 16% less likely to join school after it reopened post-Ebola. The statistic was even higher for Guinea (25%).
In many regions, the burden of domestic chores is also falling disproportionately on girls on account of lockdowns. Even more worrisome is the fact that the halt in their education is making girls susceptible to early marriage, child labour and sexual exploitation. As witnessed
in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, school closures contributed to a surge in unwanted pregnancies and sexual harassment of girls. Several schools across the world have transitioned to online platforms since the outbreak of the pandemic. However, the stark gender digital divide is preventing a large number of girls from getting access to online education. For instance, in India, women comprise
of only 30% of the total internet users. Several households also subscribe to the notion that giving their daughters a phone or access to the internet would “lead them astray”. This makes it harder for girls to attend online classes and continue their education.
Governments must collaborate with communities, local leaders, school officials and teachers to monitor
whether girls are participating in remote educational programmes. Teachers must be empowered with resources that enable them to do their essential outreach work
such as checking-in on their students (particularly girls) and convincing their parents on the importance of keeping their children engaged with their studies. As the post-pandemic recovery gradually gathers momentum, back-to-school campaigns must be designed to ensure that girls return to schools. These campaigns
should include targeted, culturally relevant messages for communities highlighting the importance of educating girls.
Rolling back gains in women’s economic progress
The repercussions of the economic meltdown triggered by Covid-19 are as devastating (if not more) as the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the economic blow of the pandemic has been harder for women as compared to men. In the US, approximately 20 million
people lost their jobs because of the pandemic; even though women account for just 49% of the workforce, 55% of the laid off workers in the month of April were female. The graph below further points out that the number of women losing their jobs across different sectors was higher than that of men.
Graph 2: Women’s share of jobs vs women’s share of job losses
Source: National Women’s Law Center Factsheet
A similar trend
was witnessed in India where the number of men who reported themselves as employed dropped by 29%, as opposed to 39% for women over the months of March and April. Several studies
point out that the pandemic could erase gains made over decades in bridging the gender pay gap. Factors driving the gender pay gap — traditional role of women as caregivers rather than professionals, the “motherhood penalty,”
conscious and unconscious bias against female employees — are likely to get exacerbated by the economic meltdown triggered by the pandemic.
Governments across nations have implemented cash transfer programmes to mitigate the economic hardships faced by individuals, women in particular. However, a large percentage of women are unable to reap the benefits of such programmes given the gender gaps in financial and digital literacy, access to technology, prevailing gender norms and household dynamics. Governments must design and implement these programs with gender-specific constraints in mind. Studies
have shown that gender-targeted cash transfers often yield more favourable results for women, households and communities. Countries such as India and Mauritania
have implemented gender-targeted cash transfer programmes, either by creating new programs targeting women or by targeting women who are beneficiaries of existing social protection programs.
In order to design a truly inclusive recovery and rebuild a “better” economy, response strategies must account for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women. Given the pivotal role of women in mitigating the pandemic’s impact and catalysing a recovery, protecting the mental and physical health, promoting education and safeguarding the economic independence of women must become a priority.
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