Written by Inaaya Kaul, a grade 11 student
Women have always been subject to baseless stereotypes and traditional gender roles, but with 2020 marking the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, this year was supposed to be a groundbreaking one for gender equality. However, this unexpected pandemic has not only halted this endeavour but generated new struggles. History has shown us that such outbreaks increase women’s role in society, causing an increase in workload and subsequently in stress. It is the women in society who hold communities together, whether it is at home, at work, or in school, but they are affected differently and more severely than men are in times of crisis. During these unpredictable times, there is an increase in domestic violence, jobs are lost and healthcare and education are affected. But the impacts of COVID are amplified for women simply because of their sex.
Gender-based violence and wellbeing
The data on violence against women is grim. Studies say that one in three women will experience violence in their lives. Now, with COVID confining them to their homes with their abusers, this number has risen dramatically. As psychological stress in men has gone up due to the loss of jobs, domestic violence has seen a sharp rise. As a result, women’s stress levels have also increased. The isolation measures taken as a result of COVID have not only put girls and women at risk of domestic violence but have made it harder for them to seek help as they have been cut off from social networks and protection services. Moreover, abusers are exploiting women by using COVID exposure as a threat. Women risk being thrown out on the street with nowhere to go and the inability to call for help or escape.
Women make up 70% of the front-line health staff globally – nurses, cleaners, caterers etc, and are thus more susceptible to the virus. They care for infected people, putting themselves at great risk of infection. Also, women account for most of the older population, making them the most vulnerable, yet they have less access to healthcare than men do.
We have learnt from past epidemics that healthcare resources are often directed at essential services and cause reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services for girls and young women. This includes HIV medication, safe abortions and contraception, which results in magnified maternal mortality and morbidity, and increased rates of adolescent pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. 18 million women will lose access to contraceptives in Latin America alone. Many conservative states in the US have tried to ban abortions, based on preserving beds and medical supplies required for the pandemic which can be mentally and physically defeating. Even though these should be considered essential services, they are not treated as such. This is not only unethical but can lead to unwanted children, raised in troubled and impoverished homes.
The lack of voices speaking up for women’s issues is largely due to the poor representation of women in global leadership, thus placing women at a clear disadvantage.
Evidence suggests that economically, women’s lives will be affected very differently from men. The impact of COVID-19 across the global economy will be extreme, as the service industry declines. Around the world, women earn less and have less secure jobs and therefore have less capacity to absorb economic shocks than men do in times of economic downturns. In March alone, 1.4 million people became unemployed in the US. Women have had a 0.9% increase in unemployment compared to a 0.7% increase for men, further foregrounding the problem. With regards to the lockdown, women are now doing a double shift – they are taking on more demanding work at home, while working harder during work-hours due to layoffs. This is leading to a large amount of stress, especially in single moms.
Moreover, women are overrepresented in the service sector, including tourism and retail, which is precisely where jobs are getting cut. During past pandemics, while economic activity subsided to pre-crisis levels for men, the impacts on women were longer lasting. It is projected that COVID-19 will cause a dip in women’s financial independence, economy and will have compounded impacts on those living in poverty, forcing them into extreme poverty.
Unpaid care work
Women are the primary caregivers and most to this work is unpaid, especially in developing countries. Examples of this in the household include domestic work like cooking, cleaning, and washing, taking care of the children and the elderly. With children out of school, unpaid care work has increased substantially leading to anxiety and stress in women. COVID-19 has been an eye-opener for us, making it starkly visible that the world’s formal economies and the maintenance of our daily lives are built on the invisible and unpaid labour of women. As it is, women are doing three times the amount of unpaid care work compared to men, and with children at home, demands for this have intensified and are deepening already existing inequalities.
Data has shown that girls spend significantly more time doing chores than their male counterparts. School closures don’t just mean girls doing more chores, but millions are dropping out before completing their education. Even before the pandemic hit, girls were not getting a quality education. COVID has just emphasized that and blown it out of proportion. Adolescent girls are at particular risk of dropping out of school even after the crisis is over, which could result in a grim future for them.
It is important that governments support equal education for both boys and girls, and empower girls to do what they love, rather than what society pressures them to do.
School and education
As a preventative measure, many governments around the world have closed schools, which leaves the women to tutor their children, since in most households men are the breadwinners and women the homemakers. However, now women work as well, but still, take care of the home.. The school closures have had an impact on over 111 million girls who are living in areas of extreme poverty. In Mali, Niger, and South Sudan, three countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls, closures have forced over 4 million girls out of school.
Despite all this, women are not given equal opportunities as men in global decision making as a response to COVID-19. This is an opportunity to shatter glass ceilings and stereotypes and change mindsets around women’s role in society. Putting women in the centre of economies will drive better outcomes globally and set us on a path of rapid recovery and bring us one step closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. When the crisis is over, women and children will need more support than ever, and we must try to ensure these protection systems are available as soon as possible.
Written by Inaaya Kaul, a grade 11 student