COVID-19: A battle of the sexes

Has the pandemic hurt women more severely than men?

In times of crisis, we are often found with ample time to reflect on the different ways in which our society — with its biases and disequilibria — has afflicted certain groups more than others.

Across the globe, and in every sphere – from economy to social welfare – the adverse impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women, purely on the grounds of gender.

The pandemic has seen a 25% upwards surge in reports of domestic abuse amongst women, and this is not the first instance of a health crisis being associated with increased domestic gender-based violence. The World Economic Forum reports that these figures also rose extraordinarily during the 2014-16 and 2015-16 Ebola and Zika epidemics respectively. Stress associated with a global crisis, along with restrictions on moving out of the household and a strain on finances, has all but stimulated the risk for violence. 

Domestic violence is not restricted to particular regions. 

Spain saw a surge of 18% more calls to the emergency hotline for domestic violence in the first two weeks of lockdown alone than in a fortnight only a month prior. 

In France, reports of domestic abuse have soared, increasing by approximately 36% compared to the pre-pandemic average. 

With the majority of Mexico’s economy effectively shutting down in late March, women have become more financially dependent on their partners. As a result, many have felt trapped, unable to leave abusive partners due to their lack of income. The proportion of 911 calls related to domestic violence in Mexico from March through May 2020 jumped by a striking 44% compared to the same period in 2019, only to be met with Mexican President Obrador dismissing 90% of those as ‘prank calls’.  It is quite apparent that even in times of distress and unprecedented hazard, women are not always taken seriously when coming forward about their situation. 

Nadine Kaslow (PhD), a psychologist and professor at Emory University, correctly pointed out that pre-pandemic, victims or at-risk women could flee dangerous situations by staying with family, seeking shelter elsewhere, or filing protective orders — but such options and amenities are now largely unavailable due to global health concerns.

“I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.’’

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations 

The gendered impact of the coronavirus pandemic spans beyond the increased risk of gender-based violence. 

While the pandemic’s impact on the global economy is undoubtedly profound, with entire industries and their respective supply chains being disrupted, and businesses needing to downscale operations,  there is increasing evidence suggesting that women’s livelihoods are being affected disproportionately more than men’s. This is largely due to the fact that, globally, women generally earn less (and subsequently save less). In 2019, women around the world earned, on average, between 3.1-6.6% less than male counterparts, after adjusting for job titles, employers, education, experience and location. This represents a statistically significant difference. Women are also more likely to hold more precarious jobs, often in the informal sector, and resultantly have a lower capacity to absorb economic shocks than men. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women account for 70% of health and social-service workers worldwide, therefore placing them at the forefront of the battle against the crisis, and at greater risk of exposure to the virus. The underlying injustice is in the fact that women earn less than men for the same work. The WHO also reports that female healthcare workers earn 11% less than their male counterparts, adjusted for hours of paid work. This lack of equal pay — and lack of hazard pay as compensation for the strenuous circumstances in which front-line staff operate to combat the virus — is affecting single mothers and two-parent households alike (albeit more so amongst single mothers). Women perform upwards of 70% of unpaid domestic care work, whether it be in single-mother or two-parent households. The mental and financial strain that this wage inequality has on working mothers in healthcare, paired with the additional risks of a global emergency, has unfortunately placed women at a higher risk (of contracting the virus and of falling into poverty) than men. 

Besides the healthcare sector, other female-dominated jobs are more at risk since women are disproportionately represented in the very sectors that have been most adversely affected by the pandemic. This includes accommodation and food services, domestic care, and retail jobs. 

McKinsey & Co. report that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic, than men’s jobs. As such, there is an inordinately high representation of women in the unemployment rate: women comprise 39% of global unemployment, but ‘account for 54% of job losses’. 

With schools and child-care facilities remaining closed, vacancies that do open up are not accessible to women, the majority of whom carry a disproportionately large responsibility for childcare. The International Labour Organization reported that caregiving is a grossly imbalanced household task, with women performing over 75% of total hours of unpaid care work in 2018. This figure has not changed drastically over the course of 2 years, even if more men and father figures are staying home due to COVID-19. Needless to say, this lack of flexibility regarding splitting caregiving equitably leaves women more restricted in their efforts to return to work.

What can be done to remedy this?

COVID-19 has not only proven a challenge for global health systems but a test of our collective humanity and empathy. We are not all affected by this pandemic and recession equally, so it is up to us to lead the path to recovery: literally, against the virus – but also towards a more equitable future. 

While generous fiscal stimulus packages have been implemented by several governments to mitigate the struggles of unemployment, lawmakers must also direct their attention towards actively planning, drafting and implementing policy measures that address issues faced by women pre-pandemic, whose effects are felt more thanks to the current crisis.

 “Women will be the hardest hit by this pandemic but they will also be the backbone of recovery in communities. Every policy response that recognises this will be more impactful for it.”

United Nations Women

Supporting victims of domestic violence during these times starts with moving reporting services online to make them more accessible during a time where women may not necessarily be able to leave their homes. Should they be able to leave, victims must be made aware of designated safe spaces (inconspicuous areas) where they can report abuse without drawing the perpetrator’s attention. Doing so will help eliminate fear, one of the most influential factors in discouraging victims from coming forward.

Besides increasing advocacy and introducing more accessible resources, possible solutions include the appointment of domestic violence shelters as essential services, and directly increasing financial support to these organizations. By equipping them with the necessary resources to operate at higher capacity while maintaining physical distancing protocol, governments can simultaneously ensure the safety of victims while committing to the safety and wellbeing of the employees involved. Additionally, non-operational businesses and schools may repurpose their unused spaces to expand these shelters’ capacity, in an effort to accommodate more victims. 

In order to assist the reintegration of women in the workforce and curb major gender disparities in the economic sphere, policies should aim to specifically target women in addition to disadvantaged minorities. Certain sectors, where women comprise a large proportion (retail, tourism, food & beverage), have been hardest hit by the pandemic. As such, they should have access to a productive form of compensation: credit, loans, and grants, to retain the female labour force beyond the pandemic. 

Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash

Beyond the aforementioned industries, women’s health must be supported. Special attention should be directed towards making ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ better-fitting for female healthcare workers. For instance, while over 75% of NHS staff are women, the majority are put at greater risk at their jobs of contracting COVID-19 due to ill-fitting protective gear, including masks, gloves, and face shields. Healthcare workers’ jobs are already difficult and dangerous enough, so ensuring that everyone can find appropriately sized PPE is the minimum we should be doing to at least alleviate unnecessary risk. 

In less developed countries where women cannot access education, literacy levels are incredibly low. As a result, there is a more urgent need for governments to make messages and resources regarding protection against COVID-19 more accessible. Correct, updated, and straightforward information about the virus should also be distributed in conflict-ridden areas to reach all vulnerable populations, including internally displaced people. 

The abrupt and infectious nature of COVID-19 has undoubtedly taken us all by surprise. 

However, eight months into 2020, and we have still not materialised actionable policy changes regarding tackling the gendered impact of this health and economic crisis. It is up to us to push for this progress, not only to minimize the afflictions of COVID-19, but to rise from the pandemic as more equitable, developed, and empathetic human beings.

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