As the COVID 19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives around the world, most of the countries have enforced some form of lockdown or shelter-in-place to prevent the infection outbreak. Experts have predicted that COVID 19 pandemic would impact every individual in some ways or other. We’ve already witnessed its catastrophic impact on public health and the economy of several countries, especially on the vulnerable communities, i.e. front line workers and other essential workers, daily wage laborers, people with disabilities and people living with acute poverty.
Like any other conflict or crisis, women and children are also disproportionately affected by the COVID 19 pandemic. As a result of The prolonged shutdown and loss of income, women, worldwide are experiencing food insecurity, poverty, eviction, increased burden of domestic and care work, disrupted maternity and newborn care, lack of access to contraception and menstrual hygiene products, high risks of infection during childbirth or neonatal care and domestic abuse and violence associated with confinement with abusive partners.
Policymakers and experts around the world are urging Governments to address the COVID 19 emergency measures through a gender-focused approach.
Pregnancy and Childbirth
The risk is multi-fold and complex for women who are pregnant and in need of routine health services. Visiting health care facilities for maternity, neonatal care, childbirth or immunization of the newborn increases the risk of infections to women and newborn babies. Pregnant women also need access to reliable information and guidance.
Places with restricted movement or shelter-in-place orders, lack of adequate resources, poverty, food insecurity and the extreme stress of living with the crisis, affect the health of the pregnant or nursing mothers, and the newborn in a disproportionate way, exposing them to malnutrition, other infectious diseases, and depression.
For women living in remote places in low-income countries, it might be extremely challenging to find reliable transportation to reach hospitals for childbirth! Poor women in rural areas are in high-risk of compromised maternity care and might have to give birth at home, in unhygienic settings, under untrained supervision, posing a significant risk to both the mother and the new-born.
Domestic and Sexual Violence
Evidence from past crises and natural disasters suggests that when families struggle with increased tensions, economic pressures, and confinement, it usually leads to increased violence against women and children.
As quarantine and stay-at-home orders take effect around the world, there has been a sharp spike in domestic violence cases in all the countries. Lack of access to safer places, inability to physically distance themselves from the predators or having to stay confined 24 hours with abusive partners are making women and girls more susceptible to physical, emotional and sexual violence.
Governments in all the countries failed to foresee and prepare for this surge of domestic violence associated with movement restrictions orders. A New York Times article reported how countries like Italy, Spain and the United States failed to address the need for more shelters for distressed women in the wake of the pandemic. Needless to mention, the resources for women are extremely scarce in low-income countries, especially among people living in rural areas or in acute poverty.
The United Nations called for urgent action to combat the worldwide surge in domestic violence. “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,” Secretary-General António Guterres wrote on Twitter-
Lack of access to sexual and reproductive rights
During the ongoing public health emergencies, human and financial resources are overwhelmed managing the immediate crisis and burden on the health system because of the infection outbreak.
Supply chains are being impacted by the shutdown, closure of international and domestic borders in some countries, negatively affecting the import and in-country availability and distribution of regular and emergency contraceptives, STD prevention medicines including HIV drugs, maternal and neonatal medicines, other essential medicines and menstrual hygiene and sanitation items. Unavailability of these essential items impacts primarily women and girls, violating their rights of sexual and reproductive health, and can have life-threatening consequences and long-term public health hazards if not addressed immediately.
More women in the Frontline and Community Health Care Jobs
According to the United Nations Populations Fund, globally around 70 percent of health and social service workers are women. Women make up around 85% of nurses and midwives in the 104 countries for which data are available. Working as midwives, nurses or community health workers place women on the front lines of the infection outbreak, making them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. More and more countries are failing to provide protective equipment to frontline workers, forcing women to face disproportionate risks and threat of infection.
The Burden of Elderly care, Child care, and Domestic work
Around the world, women bear the majority of the responsibilities of childcare, domestic work and caring of older family members. Gender gaps in unpaid work amount to about one hour per day and the gaps in unpaid work are often larger in developing countries. With schools, childcare facilities and many elder care facilities closing down, Much of this additional burden is falling on women.
Loss of income, Poverty, and Food Insecurity
Worldwide more women work in low-paying, informal sectors without any unemployment benefits, or health insurance coverage. Many migrant women work as domestic workers, sex workers or other informal care workers who lost their income during the pandemic. Women in all societies hold less wealth or assets than men. Losing economic freedom impacts their decision making power, making them more susceptible to food insecurity, poverty, starvation, and homelessness. School closures, food insecurity, and increased poverty may also increase the risks of harmful social practices against women and girls in poor communities, including child marriage, early school leaving among girls, and property grabbing from widows.
The economic and social consequences of COVID 19 pandemic will further worsen the existing inequalities and discrimination against women and girls, especially those living in extreme poverty. The pandemic is likely to have severe consequences on the specific achievement of SDG 5, and both developed and developing countries will require more time to reach gender equality targets.
While ensuring economic stabilization and protecting the vulnerable communities, countries should approach a gender based approach in the design and implementation of emergency policy responses. Governments and international organizations should also adopt a well functioning gender impact assessments, availability to quality sex disaggregated data and gender indicators.