The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare a global crisis of gender inequality. While women have achieved considerable success in their fight for equality, they continue to face violence, discrimination and exclusion globally. Women are now disproportionately bearing the costs of the pandemic, surfacing gender disparities and the norms that lie at their root.
Nonetheless, the pandemic may offer opportunities to ameliorate systemic sexism. Ensuring that more women occupy decision-making positions in the COVID-19 response could result in policy that does not disproportionately harm women in the name of combating the disease. Such an approach could also serve as a model for more inclusive governance writ large.
Financial and Personal Costs
The pandemic has ushered in a still-unfolding economic crisis. In past crises, the costs of recovery have been borne disproportionately by women, who are more likely to work in the informal and public sectors and in part-time, short-term roles. As a result, women already represent the majority of the newly unemployed in countries like the United States and Spain. Comparable data has yet to emerge elsewhere, but in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, for instance, eight out of 10 women hold informal jobs that they are at greater risk of losing.
When public services for child and elderly care are cut, women also often absorb these shocks by assuming additional burdens of unpaid care work. They often either put their careers on hold or work “a second shift” at home, subsidizing the formal economy. Recently published studies indicate an unbalanced division of home labor as a result of the current crisis. In one study, 66% of women respondents note that because of school and daycare closures, they are now responsible for childcare. These increased obligations negatively impact women’s political participation, independence and long-term earnings.
How to Fight Domestic Violence During a Global Pandemic
The pandemic also reveals and exacerbates a broad pattern of violence against women at the hands of their partners. The UN points out that home is “the most dangerous place for women.” Now, as millions of women are sheltering in place, the UN predicts at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence for each three-month extension of pandemic-related lockdowns this year. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25%, and in France, reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% since the lockdown began in late March.
During this period, women have even fewer options to seek shelter, and partners may use government-mandated social distancing as a coercive tool. Though this issue has received significant media coverage, many countries have still failed to address these real-time risks. For instance, in May, Hungary’s parliament blocked the Istanbul Convention, a regional treaty against violence on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity from becoming law. The country joins Bulgaria, Slovakia and Latvia in their similar refusal to ratify.
Gender Data Gap
It is too early to say if failures to disaggregate data by gender are impeding global public health responses. However, we do know that existing gender data gaps are harming pandemic mitigation. For instance, ill-fitting personal protective equipment (PPE) — 71% of which is designed based on a male template — is putting the lives of women on the front line at risk. This can make it difficult for women to get a proper seal on their face masks, which is essential for protection from the virus.
Failure to collect sex-disaggregated data can result in a gender data gap that prevents us from recognizing differences in the biological impact of an illness, or the social factors that drive the spread and exposure, or the efficacy of particular public health responses. The COVID-19 pandemic has thus far proved to be more lethal for men. However, at least 70% of health-care workers around the world are women, and women are often responsible for caring for the sick at home, putting them at higher risk of exposure. During the Ebola crisis, women represented up to 60% of the deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, in large part due to gender norms related to caring for the sick.
These examples are a sample of the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to light for women —especially for those facing compounding discrimination for other components of their identities. Unfortunately, the decision-makers at this seismic moment are primarily men: 72% of executive heads of global organizations active in health are men and only 13 heads of state are women, with only one woman represented in the G20.
The most obvious solution is women’s equal representation in research and decision-making roles in developing policy related to COVID-19. Women in these positions can elevate their lived experience to envision alternatives to the status quo. They can advocate for policy inclusive of the unique needs of women and other at-risk populations. This could include addressing the economic impact women have faced during this crisis, driving the transformation of the care economy, allocating resources for a robust domestic violence response and collecting comprehensive sex-disaggregated data.
Hawaii’s women-led Commission on the Status of Women is taking active steps in this direction by proposing a feminist economic recovery plan. This includes providing free childcare for essential workers and special emergency funds for marginalized groups. Pandemic responses like this could be a gateway to greater mitigation of the global crisis of gender inequality while still addressing the immediate public health crisis in a sustainable and more inclusive manner.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.