A Hidden Crisis: Coronavirus and Women’s Rights

By Arianna Pearlstein

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, people across the world have consistently heard similar messages from governments, international organizations, and celebrities alike: We are all in this together, and to return to “normal” everyone must do their part by following social distancing guidelines to limit the spread of the virus. While it is absolutely true that overcoming the coronavirus requires collective effort, as with any other crisis, it is also true that the burdens of the crisis are unequally distributed; but, of course, no government is exactly jumping to acknowledge this, much less put in the work to mitigate such inequalities. Women, particularly women in low-income countries, have been negatively and disproportionately affected by government measures and the social ramifications of the virus. From education to economics, decades of progress towards attaining basic rights for women risks being swept away as the world struggles to recover from the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on nearly every aspect of life. Even if this progress is not wholly lost, the pandemic has undeniably exaggerated pre-existing gender inequalities in ways that will persist far into the future. How exactly have women been impacted? More importantly, what needs to be done to uphold women’s rights? In this article, I answer these questions. 

At the most basic level, the economic condition of many women has deteriorated in light of the economic and work transformations forced by the pandemic. According to the United Nations, women, in general, are hit harder by the economic ramifications of crises for several reasons: not only do women tend to earn less and have fewer savings, but women are disproportionately employed in the informal economy and hence are less likely to have access to social protection. Furthermore, women are more likely to be driven out of the labor market due to unpaid care and domestic work obligations. So, how have these trends held up in the context of the coronavirus pandemic? According to World Bank data, prior to the pandemic the male-female labor market participation gap decreased by roughly 8% in the past 30 years as more women entered the labor market. However, as the pandemic has forced work to become digital and driven the foodservice, retail, entertainment, and hospitality industries to a halt, much of this progress has disappeared. This is because women are disproportionately employed in the aforementioned industries that have been curbed by the pandemic in both low-income and industrialized countries. Because women are clustered in these industries, the “COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects” report from the McKinsey Global Institute has calculated that women’s jobs are at 19% greater risk than men’s, though labor market dynamics do differ between countries. Additionally, according to the  United Nations, that 58% of employed women working in informal sectors lost an estimated average of 60% of their income in the first month of the pandemic. A prominent subsection of the informal economy is domestic work, of which  80% are women. Globally, roughly 72% of domestic workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, and because of the sector’s informal nature, they lack rudimentary labor protections including paid leave, pre-termination notices, or severance pay. As women have lost their jobs, they have been spending more time at home, and due to cultural gender norms, women have taken on even more unpaid care and domestic work burdens than before the pandemic. The combination of increasing female unemployment and unpaid care burdens has far-reaching consequences for women after the pandemic. First, as with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, current lockdowns are reducing women’s economic activity, prompting a spike in poverty and food insecurity. When this occurs, women’s economic activity is much slower to rebound than men’s. Furthermore, according to the “Global Economic Crisis and Gender Equality”  report from the United Nations, increased unemployment prompts people to return to traditional gender roles where women stay home while men are the breadwinners; this is largely because when jobs are scarce, unemployed men are more favored in the hiring process compared to unemployed women. In short, the undue economic burden placed on women during the pandemic is likely to wipe out decades of progress towards increasing the number of women in the workforce and will likely disproportionately increase the number of women living in poverty and/or dependent on male breadwinners. 

 Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/covid-19-gender-inequality-jobs-economy/ 

These economic stresses and sociocultural factors have combined with government education measures to expand the existing gender education gap. Currently, 185 countries have imposed some form of school closure due to the pandemic, and consequently, approximately 1.54 billion youth, including nearly 743 million girls, are out of the classroom. For those nearly 111 million school girls living in the world’s poorest countries, school closures are only an extra burden in societies where gender education disparities are already glaring. While it is impossible to know exactly what the impacts of the current pandemic school closures will be, past crises indicate that school closures will have a variety of negative ramifications. At a basic level, even if students are able to attend class virtually, children are still learning less under lockdown than in previous years. For girls in low-income countries, the implications of this decrease in learning are severe given that on average, girls tend to spend fewer years in school before working or becoming homemakers relative to their male counterparts. Furthermore, as with the Ebola crisis, girls are the first to be pulled out of school to perform unpaid care and domestic work at home, meaning there is less time to spend on education. Having less time for school work makes girls more likely to fall behind on their education; meaning that they are more likely to drop out as home responsibilities come to take priority over school. Not only do girls leave school due to home responsibilities, but the financial strains imposed on families (e.g. due to the death of a breadwinner) can force girls to make life-changing sacrifices. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, girls were increasingly tasked with earning income for their families after others in their family died. This puts girls at increased risk of sexual exploitation, gender-based violence, and transactional sex as they sell their bodies in exchange for food and other essentials. Another frequent occurrence is that families marry off their female children in order to use the funds from the marriage transaction to survive. While it is true that these risks do not exist equally in all countries and the aforementioned states have not been hit nearly as hard by corona, these practices exist with or without public health crises, and desperate economic circumstances frequently force girls to surrender their education. Even if girls do not face these challenges, there is another prominent barrier to girl’s pursuing their education: the digital gender divide. This refers to the inequality between the genders in access to resources and technology, as women are able to access and use technology less frequently due to reasons ranging from affordability to illiteracy, to sociocultural norms. In the context of a pandemic, which requires students to use laptops, radios, and the like to follow their classes, the digital gender gap has made it comparatively more difficult for girls to access and use the necessary technology. 

When women are pushed away from education in times of crises, they are less likely than males to return to school. This means that the challenges girls around the world face to pursue their education during the pandemic are not only a temporary problem; these barriers risk wiping away decades of efforts to improve women’s access and pursuit of education and pushing millions of women back into poverty without a basic education to help them pursue their ambitions. 

  Source: https://www.cgdev.org/blog/covid-19-and-girls-education-what-we-know-so-far-and-what-we-expect-happen 

Related to increases in transactional sex and early marriage, the pandemic has driven the global health infrastructure into overdrive, diverting attention away from crucial sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, thereby limiting women’s access to them. First and foremost, government lockdown measures have, to varying degrees, affected the production of contraceptives and access to SRH services. For instance, government lockdowns in many countries have placed strict limits on production and shipping, meaning that fewer contraceptives are being produced, and delivery is taking longer. Most of the world’s condoms are made in Malaysia and Thailand, particularly by the company Karex Berhad, who makes 1 in 5 condoms globally. However, the Malaysian government’s lockdown forced companies, including Karex, to reduce their production manpower. Consequently, in late March there was a shortage of roughly 100 million condoms globally. Additionally, reduced manpower has also been an issue in agencies responsible for certifying and registering imported contraceptives. Prominent examples include Uganda, where condoms must be inspected and approved by a designated regulator, and Kenya, where condoms must be labelled with a mark of approval. In both countries, lockdowns have reduced manpower, thereby increasing the amount of time it takes for contraceptive shipments to be marked or inspected and allowed to enter the country. It is also taking longer for contraceptives to even reach their designated markets, as is the case with a shipment of 50,000 IUDs (intrauterine device) headed for Iran, which was stuck in a Dubai port for nearly 3 months due to coronavirus measures. These shortages and delays, combined with the fact that more girls are out of the safe space the classroom provides (increasing the likelihood of transactional sex and sexual exploitation), mean that girls both lack full capacity to control their bodies and lives and are at increased risk of early pregnancy. According to Marie Stopes International, when similar delays happened during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there were an estimated 1.3-3 million unintended pregnancies, 5,000-11,000 maternal deaths, and 1.2-2.7 million unsafe abortions within the 37 countries where they operate. Even if shortages are not an issue, the pandemic has also forced the closure of, or made it increasingly difficult to access, institutions that provide SRH services. The International Planned Parenthood Federation closed over 5,000  of its member association SRH clinics and care centers globally, while many others were forced to scale down their services. In the United States, 11 states were forced to suspend abortion services in the spring, hitting independent abortion clinics, which provide essential SRH services in many southern states, particularly hard. Even where services have remained open, lockdowns have made it more difficult for clients and providers to travel to receive or deliver safe contraceptive and abortion services and health infrastructure has been greatly strained by the pandemic, meaning it is harder for women to receive attention from already overworked healthcare professionals. When the Ebola crisis caused a similar situation in West Africa, there was a 75% increase in maternal mortality rates in three of the most hard-hit countries. In sum, the supply chain and health system strain imposed by the pandemic threatens women’s basic right to have safe access to SRH services.

Finally, domestic violence, which most heavily affects women, has skyrocketed as government lockdowns have forced women to remain at home for extended periods of time with their abusive partners. The United States has seen a between 10-27% increase in domestic violence across the country, and in Brazil, that number has been roughly 30%. Likewise, Australia, China, Cyprus, France, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and the United Kingdom have all seen significant increases.  Prior to the pandemic, domestic violence was already one of the most insidious violations of women’s rights, with  243 million women and girls between 15 and 49 being subject to sexual or physical intimate partner violence (IPV)  in the 12 months leading up to the pandemic. It is important to note that gender-based violence disproportionately affects women of color. The reasons for an increase in IPV and other forms of gender-based violence go beyond the fact that women are only spending more time at home with their abusive partners. Many couples are under increased social and economic stress related to the pandemic,  and alcohol consumption (a major factor influencing risk for IPV) has increased. What’s more, staying at home for prolonged periods of time exacerbates the enforcement of traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships and increases sensitivity to minor relationship flaws and deficiencies. Combined, these factors create a situation in which gender-based violence can thrive. On top of all of this, the pandemic has made it more difficult for women to leave their abusive environments because women’s shelters are having to operate at reduced capacity, and leaving means exposing oneself to the dangers of the coronavirus. Furthermore, reporting gender-based violence has also been made more difficult by lockdowns. Even if women were in a position to leave prior to the pandemic, as mentioned above, the lockdowns have taken a toll on many female-dominated industries, meaning that for many they lack the independent source of income to finance their departure. 

As of now, few governments have explicitly acknowledged the aforementioned threats women face, much less pushed policies that will defend women’s rights. However, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments have an obligation to defend the rights of all people within their country, including women. To fulfil this obligation, several actions must be taken: 

  1. Targeted work support for women: Governments must give specific stimulus to women-owned and -led businesses, and support women workers in both the formal and informal economy by lessening the gender pay gap, providing basic employment benefits, and giving access to child-care services. 
  2. Disaggregate data: Governments and organizations collecting data on the pandemic must break up their data by sex so we can clearly identify how different sexes have been affected by the pandemic.
  3. Protect SRH and gender-based violence protective services: Just like grocery stores, these services are absolutely essential for women across the globe. Governments must ensure the continued accessibility of and fund the services while also providing them with the resources needed to work effectively. 
  4. Engage in gendered policymaking: Governments must provide relief packages that specifically acknowledge and work to address the unique ways women have been impacted by the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic is a trying time for people across the world, as many have seen the routineness of their “normal” lives swept out from under their feet. However, as with any crisis, some have been hit harder than others. Women have felt the burden of the pandemic in a multiplex of ways, with women in low-income countries being hit the hardest. As we hopefully begin to recover from the pandemic in the coming years, the needs and voices of women must be a central part of the conversation. The reason for this is simple: the coronavirus pandemic is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis of women’s rights. 

Edited by Yasmina Al Ammari

Artwork by Chira Tudoran