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Gender Equality Post-COVID-19: Rising inequalities ask for gender-sensitive policies

However, the death rate of women due to COVID 19 infection is less than men, the repercussions of worldwide lockdown have adversely affected women across communities and economic sectors throughout the globe. The experts fear that the pandemic would reverse the achievements of Gender Equality (SDG 5) that is one of the most important global goal of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the year 2030 (SDG 2030).

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 06-06-2020 11:46 IST | Created: 05-06-2020 15:24 IST
Gender Equality Post-COVID-19: Rising inequalities ask for gender-sensitive policies
Gender Equality Image Credit: Storybolocks

We see the media reports applauding women for rubbing shoulders with their men counterparts as frontline corona warriors in the form of doctors, nurses, and security personnel. These are the visible achievements of gender equality made by the world through decades of efforts and gradually conquering the obstacles of gender inequality across communities. Today, women constitute about 70 percent of the healthcare workforce including nurses, midwives, and community healthcare workers. According to the UNDP, women represent 39 percent of world employment and occupy 27 percent of managerial positions. Though unsatisfactory for feminist organizations, several such achievements in the field of gender equality (SDG 5) are facing the dangers of being reserved.

In the initial days, the COVID-19 was perceived only as a health crisis to which countries responded by imposing restrictions on mobility but it was soon followed by lockdowns throughout the world. The economic impacts of the lockdown are multidimensional thereby increasing unemployment, poverty, child labor, health risks, inequality, food insecurity, and vulnerability to the diseases. Though COVID itself is not much fatal for women and children, they will be the worst sufferers from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Several initiatives of women empowerment such as economic freedom, social equality, health, education, and reproductive rights have collapsed and previous benefits are fast evaporating as women have been forced to stay inside the four walls of the house.

Economic Dependency

Throughout the world ratio of working women employed in the informal sector is higher than men. According to a report by UN Women, globally 540 million women work in the informal economy. The report also exposes the vulnerability of women in the post-pandemic world from the perspective of economy, health, unpaid care work, domestic violence, humanitarian and fragile settings, and human rights. In developing economies, informal work makes up to 70 percent of women's employment. As industries were shut down overnight, informal workers have been the worst suffers in the lockdown. Furthermore, several sectors where maximum employees are women such as childcare centers, garment industry, tourism, hospitality, and cosmetics, etc., have been hit the hardest. The same is true for small businesses throughout the world such as MSME in India. Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs), the most popular mode of women's economic empowerment in the pre-pandemic period are also facing shut down due to supply chain-related issues and lack of buyers.

The estimates suggest that the women constitute about 75 percent of the global garment workforce mostly engaged in the informal sector where work conditions have been highly exploitative in terms of wages, working environment, and social security. As globalization caused large scale outsourcing in the garment industry to the developing countries in search of cheap labor, it further worsened the situation. There are several cases of exploitation of women up to the extent of forcing them to compromise on their reproductive rights but they used to tolerate in exchange for wages to run their families. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that the recession caused by the COVID 19 would result in 195 million job losses, globally. The worst affected sectors, according to ILO, will be food and accommodation (144 million workers), retail and wholesale (482 million); business services and administration (157 million); and manufacturing (463 million). Therefore, the stake is high for working women and girls as a lack of economic independence will directly impact their status in the family as well as in society making them vulnerable to domestic violence and exploitation at the workplace.

According to a recent report, about 37.2 million US citizens were unemployed due to the pandemic and have applied for benefits. The alarmingly growing unemployment throughout the world may force developed economies to opt for inward-looking policies thereby further shrinking job opportunities in developing and underdeveloped countries. The lockdown has also increased developmental disparity between the rich and the poor besides a huge aspiring population was pushed back from lower middle class and middle class to the poor category. Thus COVID 19 has increased the population of the poor across economies, decreased their purchasing power, and made them more vulnerable to the diseases.

As the schools are shut down and online classes are the only medium of instruction, the children of the poor particularly girls have been cut off from the education system. If not controlled on time through effective policy interventions, this may result in high dropouts and child labor. Thus pushing a whole generation in a new vicious cycle of poverty. UN studies suggest that globally, women between 25 to 34 years' age group are 25 percent more likely than men to live in extreme poverty, they will be more vulnerable to poverty-related issues in the post-pandemic world.

Family Responsibilities

The findings of the UN Women based on the data of 90 countries suggest that in the pre-pandemic period, the women used to invest three times more time than men in domestic work and fulfilling family responsibilities or care services. COVID-19 has increased the workload for women due to the following reasons:

  • As schools are closed, children are at home who require extra care to protect them from infection.
  • If male members in the family are engaged in 'work from home', the women are providing care services that would have been taken care of by assistance staff in the office.
  • As the COVID 19 is highly contagious, several families have relieved domestic workers for the time being. This is an additional responsibility for women and girls of the family.
  • In the case of working women who are engaged in 'work from home', the problems have multiplied.
  • Online classes have further increased the burden on parents due to which women are either performing the role of teacher and tutor or providing care services in this duration if male members are handling those responsibilities.
  • The responsibilities are more for families who have elders to be taken care of. As it requires extra care to protect them from COVID 19 infection.
  • The problem is many times more for the families that are required to take care of COVID 19 infected/ ill family members.

In several communities, women and girls were still struggling to get the approval of the male members for going outside the home. Now they are packed inside homes with all the facilities of outings and vacation tours cut off. The UN Women has classified fulfilling the family responsibilities as 'unpaid caregiving' which 'negatively affects' the career of women and girls.

Health and Reproductive Rights

Globally, women constitute about 51.2 percent of total COVID 19 cases. However, the high rate of infection of COVID 19 among women healthcare workers particularly in leading developed countries such as Spain (75.5%), Italy (69%), and US (73%) indicates the deep-rooted gender-based discrimination. Furthermore, the ratio of females infected with novel coronavirus is also very high in Belgium (63%), Canada (54%), Maldives (86%), Netherland (63%), England (54%), Pakistan (74%) and Bangladesh (68%). However, the mortality of infected women has been less due to their higher immunity across age groups throughout the world.

But the health problems of women are beyond the direct infection of COVID 19. The collapse of the supply chain system from local to global levels has blocked the regular supply of sanitary pads and contraceptives which are required to maintain hygiene and reproductive rights of women. As the health services are focused to handle the pandemic, women and girls have the least access to healthcare services. Experts estimate about 44 million women in 114 low and middle-income countries could lose access to contraception, leading to 1 million unintended pregnancies in three months' lockdown. This figure of unplanned pregnancies could rise to 7 million if the lockdown continues for six months. About 18 million more women will lose access to conceptive only in Latin America.

The data suggest towards low mortality among females due to COVID 19 but the long term impact of disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics have always resulted into high mortality of women due to deep-rooted gender-based discrimination, sacrificing nature of women for their family and health challenges specific to women particularly those related to maternity. The epidemic of Ebola in African countries had resulted in an increase of 70 percent of maternal mortality in West Africa as all the resources were diverted to combat the epidemic.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Exploitation

The women living in strained relationships and abusive partners are forced to tolerate the violence as the services are cut off. Besides, children also silently witness the domestic violence unfolding within the house during the lockdown which affects their mental growth as well.

According to the UNFPA, every three months of lockdown could result in 15 million more cases of domestic abuse than would normally be expected. The report predicts a 20 percent surge in domestic violence as victims remain trapped at home with their abusers. As the duration of lockdown is increasing cases of domestic violence are surging worldwide. In addition to the efforts made by local police, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also launched an initiative to guide the victims of domestic violence. A media report suggests that Delhi police received 2,446 calls related to women in the second week of April out of which 600 were classified as 'women abuse', 23 reported rape, and 1612 were of domestic violence. Domestic violence has also increased in developed countries such as in the US, authorities received over 5,000 people calls on National Domestic Violence Hotline during lockdown till April.

However, reports of rising domestic violence cases from throughout the world promoted the UN agencies and international organizations to swing into action. FIFA, European Commission, and WHO jointly launched #SafeHomeCampaign on May 26 to help women in distress and sensitize communities on domestic violence. UNDP has issued guidelines on 'Gender-based violence and COVID-19. It is also coordinating with national and local agencies in countries such as Somalia, Mexico, and Uganda, etc., to reach out to the victims of domestic violence. Besides, WHO has also published detailed guidelines for the health system/sector for handling such situations as part of their COVID-19 response. The United Nations has published a protocol 'Domestic Abuse: How to Respond?' under its 'COVID-19 Response' guidelines with an emphasis on those vulnerable to psychological and mental health.

Social Challenges

The restrictions to mobility coupled with decreased financial independence of women may lead to a surge in the cases of child marriages, genital mutilation, polygamy, and other social problems that are caused due to reduced status of women in the family and community. As the communities have been physically cut off from the external world and the entire focus of the governments is on combating the pandemic, the wicked minds will take control of the decision making at the family and community level. This will further shrink the social space for women and girls.

Furthermore, an increase in alcoholism and substance abuse are bigger challenges before the economies to continue the mission of women empowerment. The UN Women has recommended focusing on five priorities for long term benefits such as gender-based violence, including domestic violence, is mitigated and reduced; social protection and economic stimulus packages serve women and girls; people support and practice equal sharing of care work, women and girls lead and participate in COVID-19 response planning and decision-making, data and coordination mechanisms include gender perspectives.

The Way Ahead

In view of the several socio-economic and healthcare challenges posed by the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, every economy of the world will require careful policy interventions to uplift the status of women and help them to lead a respectable life in society. Under the broad vision of the United Nations, the economies will be required to set their targets of gender equality in light of their strengths and weaknesses and channelize their resources to achieve them in a time-bound manner.

Though the crisis is the same problems and their solutions will be different for different economies as per their peculiar socio-economic and political situations. There could not be one size fits all kinds of solutions as every country is facing and will continue to face different kinds of challenges related to production, supply chain, distribution, consumer behavior, socio-political challenges, natural resources, etc. However, some broad policy guidelines could be recommended to address the potential challenges related to gender equality in the post-pandemic world.

Gender budgeting at the national, regional, and global level seems the best suitable option to face the challenges posed by the COVID 19 pandemic and lockdown caused by it. Investments by keeping women at the center should not be perceived anything against men because any gender policy cannot be made without keeping the welfare of expectant mothers and their children in mind which is the ultimate objective of both the parents – male and female. The policies related to children shall always be gender-neutral and there should not be any discrimination of any kind. Besides combating the COVID pandemic, the government also needs to make special arrangements for sanitary pads, contraceptives, maternity, and child care facilities. This is necessary to contain three more imminent health crises – high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, and high child death rate. Furthermore, gender budgeting will increase the employment of women resulting in higher family income and increased purchasing power of the family.

The domestic work and care services of women need to be recognized and appreciated. Besides, the family members, irrespective of their gender and age, should share equitable domestic and family responsibilities so that work is shouldered appropriately and will not become a burden on any single person or female members of the family. In addition to investment for economic empowerment, the countries should also plan for care facilities to shelter women in distress. AI (Artificial Intelligence) based technological innovations should be deployed in surveillance, monitoring, and addressing crime against women and also for their rehabilitation. The communication campaigns may also play a significant role in combating domestic violence and crime against women and girls. These objectives will be better achieved by the ensuing equal participation of women at all levels of COVID 19 response plans which besides enhancing preparedness will also help in making communities resilient to COVID 19 and also against the unseen disease outbreaks in future.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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