Gender Inequality Magnified by the COVID-19 Pandemic

As COVID-19 has swept all over the world, it has exacerbated gender inequality. The impacts of such crises are never gender-neutral. Women are bearing the burden of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19. With the spread of the pandemic women became more exposed to domestic violence, domestic work brunt, income losses, less access to health care, and end of small female-led business. Women who are already under the poverty line and marginalized face an even higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and fatalities, loss of livelihood, and increased violence.

According to studies run by UN Women, the pandemic will contribute to the worsening of gender-poverty gaps. This is especially the case among those aged 25 to 34, at the height of their productive and family formation period. The study predicted that in 2021 there will be 118 women aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty for every 100 from the same age category and that this ratio could rise to 121 poor women for 100 poor men by 2030. This study shows that the pandemic will lead 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. This will bring the total number of women and girls living on USD 1.90 or less, to 435 million.

Industries that were hardest hit by COVID-19 are mainly covered by women; 40.0 per cent of all employed women work in hard-hit sectors compared 36.6 per cent of employed men. Even before the pandemic within some of these sectors where informal employment is common; women were already suffering from low pay and disfavored working conditions. Women in these sectors didn’t even have social protection like access to healthcare or unemployment insurance. Women that work in informal employment represent 58.0 per cent of employed women. According to UN estimations, the informal workers globally lost an average of 60.0 per cent of their income. 

Most industries that employ migrant workers did shutdown and have seen mass dismissals, resulting in incomeless migrants with an unclear legal status. Overseas labor migrants did not only lose their jobs but they were also thrown in the streets with no resources and no access to basic human needs or health services. Even before the pandemic, this category was marginalized. The pandemic aggravated their vulnerability; and their vulnerability, in turn, risks aggravating the pandemic. COVID-19 has heightened existing vulnerabilities for migrant workers and introduced new risks. 

The experience of women in Liberia indicates that recovering from a pandemic is a tough proposition. During the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak, they endured higher levels of unemployment than men and it subsequently took considerably longer for them to re-enter the workforce. Today, economic insecurity is not just jobs, and income. It has a snowball effect on the lives of women and girls for years to come. Impacts on education and employment have long lasting consequences that, if unaddressed, will reverse hard-won gains in gender equality. During the recent Ebola outbreak, quarantines significantly reduced women’s economic activity, driving a spike in poverty and food insecurity. While men’s economic activity rebounded quickly, women’s did not.

As most countries ordered their citizens to stay at home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus, quarantine measures were taken; schools and day-care facilities closed. These safety measures have led to additional workload on women. For working mothers, these measures led to causing extra stress to women since they had to balance between employment, house chores, childcare and schooling responsibilities. Even before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence was a problem of epidemic proportions, with one in three women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. Now, as measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus have put unprecedented numbers of people into lockdown, women subjected to violence are even more isolated and at risk.

During the lockdown, the number of women suffering from domestic violence has drastically increased. Estimates by the UN Population Fund indicate that six months of pandemic-related lockdowns could result in 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence. In both developed and developing countries, the hotlines and counseling increased dramatically. In Colombia, for example, reports of gender-based violence during lockdown increased by 175.0 per cent compared with the same period in 2019, according to Plan International. 

A study was held by The International Center for Diarrhoeal Diseases Research in Rupganj upazila from Narayanganj district in Bangladesh on the immediate impact of stay-at-home orders to control COVID-19 transmission; 2174 out of 2417 women living with their husbands shared information about intimate partner violence during the lockdown. Emotional violence included insults was reported by 19.9 per cent; 68.4 per cent of them reported an increase, humiliation increased by 66.0 per cent and intimidation 68.7 per cent. When it comes to physical violence (eg, being slapped or having something thrown at them) was reported by 6.5 per cent ;56.0 per cent of them reported an increase. Sexual violence was less common 3.0 per cent reported it but of those affected, 50.8 per cent mentioned that it had increased since the lockdown.

The increase in intimate partner violence might embody a combination of predisposing and precipitating factors. In Bangladesh, 55.0 per cent of women in rural areas and 48.7 per cent in urban areas report having experienced physical or sexual violence from their husband. The most common reasons perceived by women were unprovoked violence, or violence triggered by a financial crisis. Precipitating factors in men during the pandemic might include the stress of losing income, which might lead to anxiety and also cause loss of occupational identity, humiliation, increases in depressed mood, and a feeling of powerlessness about the situation. 

Seeking help for gender-based violence has become difficult in the current situation. Victims and survivors of violence are finding it difficult to reach out for help and external support especially during lockdowns. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres encouraged governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to COVID-19. His request came after domestic violence hotlines around the globe reporting a precipitous rise in calls following lockdown orders. One police station near Wuhan, China received three times the usual call volume when the province was under quarantine. The French government announced it would pay for pop-up counseling centers and for hotel rooms for victims can escape violent home situations.

In humanitarian settings like detention centers and refugee camps, the consequences of COVID-19 impose a new level of suffering and hardship on some of the world’s most vulnerable women. These women were already facing significant barriers to information and services, insufficient financial resources, and a lack of autonomy over their own sexual and reproductive health, leaving them subject to exploitation and violence.

Women were not only unable to reach out to counseling centers but they also didn’t have access to health services. Although women represent 70.0 per cent of the healthcare sector globally, women’s sexual, health and reproductive health services characterized as “nonessential” are being cut. Access to contraception, maternal health, menstrual hygiene products, and abortion services have reduced as the pressure of COVID-19 grows on health systems. In the United States, Ohio, Texas, and Alabama have tried to restrict abortion services. In India, menstrual products were at first not classified for essential production. A lesser access to sexual and reproductive health services might lead to an increase in maternal mortality just like what happened following the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  The United Nations Population Fund predicted that there could be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide because of the pandemic, with potentially thousands of deaths from unsafe abortion and complicated births due to lack access to emergency care. 

Governments have to take into consideration several factors before taking any decisions. Therefore, governments should take responsibility of disadvantaged people and those that will suffer due to governmental decisions. They are responsible of assisting vulnerable women and their families by delivering support packages like cash-transfers and unemployment benefits. Governments can support women-owned and –led businesses through subsidized and state-backed loans, also through easing tax burdens. By receiving specific grants and stimulus funding, as well as subsidized and state-backed loans business owned and led by women will thrive. Tax burdens should be eased and where possible, governments should source food, personal protection equipment, and other essential supplies from women-led businesses. Economic relief should similarly target sectors and industries where women are a large proportion of workers. Economic insecurity also increases the risk of gender-based violence. Without sufficient economic resources, women are unable to escape abusive partners and face a greater risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Governments should provide a safety net through social protection and benefits to informal workers. Most importantly, they are duty bound to communicate with migrant workers about their rights, access to services, and safety must be expanded. Lack of information is already a problem for migrant workers in normal times. Lastly, governments should implement gender-responsive social protection systems to support income security for women. 


About the author:

Farah Kanbi born and raised in Tunisia and currently living in Italy. She holds a BA in International Relation, a MA in International Relations, and a MA in International Cooperation, Development, and Migration. She has always been passionate for human rights and giving voice for the voiceless. Farah is interested in human trafficking, migrations studies, refugees and stateless persons’ rights. She has an experience for women rights advocacy with CREDIF, Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women. She worked on several campaigns with CREDIF like calling for women participation in politics and local affairs, and gender-based violence in the public sphere. She is currently volunteering for Centro Astalli Palermo, working on accompanying, serving and defending the rights of refugees, from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa, who flee their homes and come to Italy asking for protection. She is also member of the youth-led initiative Politics4Her.

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