By Dhanishta Mittal
“The fact that we do not have enough women in leadership roles in the context of decision-making on the response to this pandemic means that we are missing huge pieces of information, of experience and that impacts all.”
Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates inequalities for women, UN warns, THE GUARDIAN
The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered economies across the globe, forced multinational businesses to shut down, compelled people to quarantine themselves, and observe social distancing norms in order to contain the spread of the virus and expose the existing gender gap in vulnerabilities to the virus. In order to combat the virus, governments across the globe have introduced aggressive social distancing norms without addressing the lacunae in the context of gendered distresses. In the patriarchal society that we live in, the already stigmatized role of women in the public sector has been further hampered by the pandemic. The experiences of women from previous epidemics like Zika and Ebola demonstrate that women and girls are exposed to additional vulnerabilities than their male counterparts especially in societies where women do not enjoy sufficient autonomy over their own sexual and reproductive health, limited access or inadequacy of health facilities along with the dearth of finances to sustain their livelihoods.
The author, through this article, aims at highlighting the differential impact that a pandemic like COVID-19 can afflict on the lives of the females globally, with particular focus in the context of India. With the government’s limited focus on female-specific issues amidst the pandemic and their burgeoning susceptibility to the disease, apart from the evident risk of loss of financial security because of cuts in employment, the paper highlights specific complications which women are subjected to, that ought to be addressed to prevent the rolling back of the limited movement done towards gender equality at the global level.
Gendered Problems Faced by Women Globally
Despite the Executive Board of the World Health Organization recognizing the need to include women in policies designed to combat the virus, statistics show that women’s representation in the national and global COVID-19 policy making is abysmally low and dismal. An allusion in this regard can be made to the White-House Coronavirus Task Force. Alternatively, women leaders of power like Jacinda Arden, Angela Merkel, Mette Frederiksen, to name a few have adopted effective strategies to combat the virus through the assistance of public health experts and scientists bolstering the argument that inclusion of women in leadership or decision-making bodies encapsulates the need for a ‘whole-society approach’ towards battling against the virus.
While acknowledging that the devastating effects of the virus are faced by all, the repercussions however, pan out differently for women in contradistinction to their male counterparts. These range from a spike in domestic violence and abuse cases to heightened risk of contracting the disease by the medical staff composed mostly of female nurses and even losing employment amidst the global slowdown of growth and economic activities. With the previous epidemic experiences, intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women and children are likely to rise disproportionately. Syria and Yemen saw increased forced/child marriages as a coping mechanism which not only raises the likelihood of IPV but also majorly impacts on the mental health of the females, leading to increased suicides or psychological disorders. India, which has been regarded as the ‘most dangerous country for women due to high risks of sexual violence’ has begun to experience an escalated reporting to domestic violence as noted by the National Commission for Women which resorted to social media to report online complaints since the lockdown announced in the nation forced women to stay longer with potential perpetrators within the family or abusive partners. India noted a nearly 50% hike in the reported cases of domestic violence since the lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister in the country.
The UNFPA in its technical brief on COVID-19 when studied from a gendered lens highlights that the supply of family planning and sexual health commodities including menstrual health will be severely impacted because of the distress faced by supply chains and manufacturing units being shut down amidst the pandemic. Specifically, in the context of India, the government had not included sanitary napkins as essential commodities in its first document on ‘essential commodities’ which were made available despite the nationwide lockdown. Only when people raised concerns about the availability of menstrual hygiene products not being available was the sanitary napkin included as an essential commodity. This demonstrates the social conditioning which is prevalent in our society wherein female-specific issues are not considered holistically particularly when issues surrounding menstruation are a taboo in India.
From previous lessons in Liberia and Sierra Leone during Ebola in 2015, the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) saw an unprecedented hike as women were forced to stay in their homes as quarantine restrictions were imposed, rumors to avoid medical centers were flouted and hospitals were overflowing with Ebola patient treatments such that safe childbirth related acts were neglected. Consequently, preventable maternal death surged, and women refused to oblige with their post-natal obligations such as vaccinations against yellow fever, polio etc. Doctors expect the collateral damages of the pandemic to be higher than the destruction caused by the pandemic itself specifically due to restricted supply of family planning and maternal health equipment amidst the hike in supply of masks, sanitizers and other COVID-19 related medical equipment. Closed borders weakened productivity and insufficient awareness campaigns about the transmission of COVID-19 result in myths that compel low attendances by pregnant women resulting in higher MMR. Moreover, with the Midday meals being halted due to the lockdown in India, malnutrition related diseases are likely to see a spike in the upcoming years.
The disproportional representation of women in the health sector and social-service personnel further puts them in a risk of contracting the disease. About 70% of the workforce in the health sector are women, in the roles of nurses, mid-wives, hospital staff, community health workers which places them in the forefront of any outbreak of disease. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about 80% of women in Asia Pacific perform activities which are unpaid, and care providing in nature, three times as much as men. In line with that idea, the traditionally enforced female role as primary caregivers puts them in a graver danger of contracting the disease because women are expected to take care of their sick family members and look after the needs of the children and/or ailing grandparents in the family particularly in joint Indian families with unwritten roles defined in Indian households.
Economically too, women are more likely to be removed from employment than men. According to a study by OECD, jobs created during and after an economic crisis mostly target men, making it difficult for women to spring back to employment. Around 80% of women employed in South Asia belong to the unorganized sectors or self-help groups which are not recognized in cases of safety nets by the governments since such benefits derive from being employed on contractual basis. The fact that companies in the United Kingdom have been given a pass on reporting their gender pay gap has begun to evidence the argument that multiple laws surrounding gender parity at workplaces will be watered down amidst and post the pandemic.
Need for Female-Specific Policies to Address Female Issues
The Constitution while aiming to establish equality amongst all individuals recognizes the need to treat different categories of people differently, with differential policies in place for women, children and minority communities in the country. Women have been the subject of violence, subjugation for aeons across the world. It is peremptory for governments to have women leaders at the helm who sympathizes with the female-specific experiences and aids in introducing gender-specific policies and resolves distress calls from women as a priority. Policies need to be in place that proscribes employers from indiscriminately laying off their female employees merely based on their gender as opposed to their performance at work. Incentives need to be re-introduced that allure girls to attend schools post the pandemic especially in rural India since there is a likelihood that families would send off their children to earn money for their family’s sustenance. It is equally important for the government to announce financial packages particularly dedicated to meet the nutritional requirements of adolescent girls and pregnant women in low-income households. Creation of mental health counselling helpline services will further assist women to vocalize their morbid experiences both during and post the pandemic.
In conclusion, this pandemic offers the globe an opportunity to alter the systemic oppression through policies that direct money towards improved education and increased vocational training towards more stable jobs. Acknowledgment of the need to organize the informal sector is another rudimentary step towards including more people within the governmental protection. Sensitivity towards women and creating awareness about the need to view them as equal participants in the smooth functioning of an economy will bolster our ability to build a future of gender-parity.
The author is a third year student, currently pursuing their law degree from the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad.
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