Why women bear the brunt of the pandemic

By Kate Vanderbraak

Crises affect men and women differently, as they face different degrees of exposure. The global crisis induced by COVID-19 has particularly heavy implications for women. It’s important we draw attention to the underlying reasons why women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as structural gender inequality remains relevant for women across the world.

Globally, over two billion people work informally, representing 61% of the world’s employed population.  Within the formal employment sector, women hold the majority of part-time or temporary work, making them far more likely to fall through the cracks of safety nets.  Outside of the formal employment sector, roughly four out of five Africans, three out of five Asians and two out of five Americans engage in the informal sector, of which women represent a much larger share than men. Work in the informal economy can be characterized as unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, long hours, low wages, and is not regulated or protected under legislation. Half of all female informal workers lack formal education, leaving them with little to fall back on. Their lower status in the labour market leaves them exposed to economic shocks and susceptible to lay-offs. Informal employment lacks basic protection to buffer the economic effects from the lockdown. Since the informal economy is primarily composed of women, the gender disparities are likely to worsen as the pandemic harms women’s labour market prospects.

Healthcare workers are on the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus. Women account for almost 70% of the global healthcare workforce, putting them at greater risk of infection and in direct line of patient abuse induced by heightened emotions. Reports from China, Italy and Singapore show an increase in both verbal and physical attacks on healthcare workers. In Africa, where 65% of nurses are female, women provide care services both inside and outside of the hospital, i.e. as home and family caregivers. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, lower-level healthcare workers (e.g. nurses, birth attendants and laundry workers) did not receive the same personal protective gear as higher-ranking hospital officials (e.g. doctors). Heavy social expectations were also placed on women in West Africa to care for ill family members and attend burial rituals, while refusal to either was regarded as a “severe morale failing”. Concerns of history repeating itself have resurfaced, as the consequences of under-equipped and over-exposed care givers push matters between life and death.

The pandemic has laid bare the grim consequences of government-imposed lockdowns on women. With half of the world on strict lockdown earlier this year, heightened security, health and money struggles have intensified strains in the household. The closure of public life has made it harder for women to seek help from support networks or organizations. Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands of the virus and as a result, failing to address the spillover effect of increased violence. Countries including Canada, the US, Germany, Spain and the UK reported substantial demand for emergency shelters for victims of violence. Meanwhile, the Government of South Africa and Kenya reported a spike in calls to the national help center and sexual and violent offences. This is alarming, considering the true rate of violence is often much higher than what is recorded, as GBV often goes unreported. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa revealed that many forms of violence, including trafficking, sexual abuse, exploitation, and child marriage tend to magnify during crises. The severity and complexity of violence is increasing far faster than resources can manage.

Gender disparities in education have kept women less educated than men and school closures threaten the progress made to close this gap. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 1.6 billion children have been affected by school closures. The losses in learning are significant, especially for children who do not have Internet access or technology for distance-learning. But the gender inequalities pervasively affect girls’ education in developing countries more, since they are less likely to own a mobile phone or have access to the Internet. Furthermore, widespread school closures burden households with increased caregiving; tasks which fall under girls’ umbrella of responsibility. The increased domestic workload affects girls’ ability to remain engaged in education in the long term. As household income becomes more strained during the crisis, expectations to contribute to family care-related duties increases, which has a high risk of leading to girls’ permanent school dropout.  

COVID-19 has shown us the true colors of our world and the systems which build it. It has highlighted the weak fabric on which they were built, and now the seams are beginning to tear. Women comprise half the population, but society doesn’t treat them as equal. Countries are struggling to grapple with the implications of the virus, albeit the similarities underlying the context of women’s struggles around the world should be brought to light to provide a greater understanding of the systemic issue at large. Fundamental change powered by a paradigm shift is needed to alleviate the imminent threat facing vulnerable women. This is no easy task. If COVID-19 was a game of poker, then women have been dealt a bad hand. But if past crises have taught us anything, this hand could be the catalyst for profound reinvention. 

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