Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on women

covid-19 women
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Laura Turquet of UN Women tells us how the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the lives of women around the world.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) is dedicated to promoting and enshrining women’s equality around the world. Laura Turquet, Policy Advisor in UN Women’s Research and Data section, speaks with HEQ about the gendered aspects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-political issues which surround it, including the increased burden of care, the pervasive issue of PPE sizing, and the ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic abuse.

What have been the key impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, outside of healthcare contexts?

The pandemic is both exposing and amplifying pre-existing inequalities between women and men. While men are suffering higher mortality rates, women are especially affected by the economic and social fallout: as victims of domestic violence locked down with their abusers; as unpaid caregivers in families and communities, picking up the slack where schools, childcare and other services are shut down or scaled back: and as workers in jobs which lack social protection, and which are being lost at an alarming rate.

Women are more likely to work in those sectors that have been hardest hit; and in many countries, they are more likely than men to cut back on working hours in light of rising demands at home, whether it’s supervising children’s remote learning, cleaning or preparing family meals. Women’s role as shock absorbers during crises such as COVID-19 sustains families and communities, but it often has lasting negative implications for their economic security and autonomy.

We know from previous crises, for example, that women’s employment recovers much more slowly than men’s when economies pick up again. Without decided action, there is a real danger that the pandemic will erase the important but fragile progress that women have made over the past decades.

Can you tell me a bit about the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women and girls during the pandemic? What are some potential causes of this?

We know from past experience that when crises hit, violence against women and girls gets worse. In this case, the combination of the economic devastation and lockdowns, which have literally trapped women at home with their abusers, have created a perfect storm. Although it is not safe to survey women on their experiences of violence in the midst of the crisis, we know from service providers – mostly small, underfunded women’s organisations – that calls for help have spiralled upwards. From Argentina to the UK and Tunisia, providers of hotlines, shelters and online resources have reported an increase in demand of between 25% and 500%.

In other contexts, there is concern that the increased economic distress may trigger an increase in child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, as families make very difficult choices, or that women may resort to transactional sex, where their livelihoods have been destroyed.

Another driver of increased violence is the fact that, in some contexts, so much of our work and home lives have moved online. Cyber-violence, like sexualised trolling and online stalking, have intensified; with new forms of violence such as ‘Zoom-bombing’ emerging to intimidate and harass women and girls.

How could law enforcement and policymakers act to manage and, ideally, mitigate the increased risk of domestic violence within the context of widespread lockdowns?

UN Women has recently launched a new Global COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker, co-created with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to analyse government responses to COVID-19 from a gender perspective. One of the areas that we looked at was governments’ responses to violence against women; and we found that this was an area where quite a lot of action is being taken. We tracked a total of 2,500 policy measures and found that around 900 of these were gender sensitive, with about 70% of the gender sensitive measures addressing violence against women. The tracker includes details of the kinds of measures being taken, including things like hotlines for survivors, additional funding for shelters and awareness raising campaigns. In some contexts, governments are ensuring that courts can continue to operate virtually to deal with violence cases, to issue protection orders and so on.

This is all quite encouraging. However, many of the measures that we are seeing are relatively small in scope, especially compared to the scale of the problem. UN Women is calling for services that respond to violence against women to be treated as essential public services, that are sustained throughout the lockdowns and the pandemic, provided with adequate funding and that are an integral part of governments’ overall COVID-19 response plans. Only about one third of countries that have taken action on violence against women have integrated these measures into their overall COVID-19 response plans.

See the Global Factsheet for the tracker for examples of VAW policies.

The majority of nurses and healthcare workers in Europe are women, but most personal protective equipment (PPE) is sized primarily for men. What are the key risks this poses to female medical professionals?

Around 70% of health workers worldwide are women, and they are especially over-represented among nurses and community health workers, who tend to have particularly close and prolonged contact with those who are sick, which puts them at heightened risk of infection. In fact, emerging data from Spain and Italy shows that female health workers are becoming infected at twice the rates of their male counterparts (the data on Spain is available here: https://data.unwomen.org/features/covid-19-and-gender-what-do-we-know-what-do-we-need-know).

The issue of inadequate and ill-fitting PPE is likely to be a factor here too.

The other important workers that need PPE, training and support are social care workers, both paid and unpaid. Care homes for older persons have been a major source of infections in many countries in Europe and North America, and they are mostly staffed by poorly paid women, often from racial and ethnic minorities, with little training or support. Unpaid carers at home, also prominently women, are another group that needs to be reached in this regard.

Would the projected ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 this winter be likely to have additional adverse impacts on women? How can we act now in order to be better prepared, particularly in terms of implementing care measures for children and vulnerable adults?

Our policy tracker shows that governments’ responses to support unpaid care work have been quite limited. Globally, only 8% of all the social protection and labour market measures taken by governments support unpaid care work. This really affects women because even before the pandemic, globally, women did three times as much unpaid care work as men. Surveys conducted since the outbreak have found that men are doing a bit more of this work, but the lion’s share still rests on women’s shoulders.

The majority of countries that have put measures in place are in high-income countries; and Latin America is also a region that does relatively better. The kinds of measures that are needed are special leave entitlements for parents, cash transfers to compensate families for the fact that daycare centres and schools are closed, and increased provision and funding for care services. Very few countries are strengthening care services, including for older and vulnerable adults, so it is possible that we will see a lot of cases again in these institutions.

In some cases, countries put in place quite progressive provisions to support unpaid care work but haven’t sustained them over the longer term. As you note, with the second wave coming or already with us, this is leaving parents, and mostly women, stuck with no support for care. This often means they cannot do paid work or are working double and triple shifts to keep their families afloat.

How could policymakers better address the different needs of women and men, both during and after the pandemic? How important is female representation at a policy level?

Although women are heads of state or government in only 21 countries, what they lack in numbers, they are making up for in performance. Women leaders in Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand and Slovakia are being recognised for their early response to the pandemic, success in ‘flattening the curve’, and for communicating public health measures transparently and compassionately.  Before the pandemic, nearly half of the world’s population (47%) believed that men made better political leaders than women. Perhaps these visible successes will help to chip away at the discriminatory social norms driving these beliefs.

But in spite of their success, women remain underrepresented at all levels of political decision-making – and their specific needs are at risk of being overlooked in the development, scrutiny and monitoring of COVID-19 policies, plans and budgets. As government resources are being channelled towards the health response, the concern is that without enough women in decision-making spaces, critical gender equality issues like violence and maternal health may not be addressed adequately.

Laura Turquet
Policy Advisor
Research and Data
UN Women

This article is from issue 15 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.


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