From job loss to increased childcare responsibilities and health risks, women are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to a new report “From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19” from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
The UN Women report states that — along with impeded access to sexual and reproductive health and a spike in domestic violence — women are losing their livelihoods faster amid the pandemic because they are “more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors.”
“Women typically earn less and hold less secure jobs than men,” states the report. “With plummeting economic activity, women are particularly vulnerable to layoffs and loss of livelihoods.”
Informal workers around the globe — defined as workers who don’t report earnings for tax purposes and lack job security and employee benefits, most of whom are women — saw their income drop by an estimated 60 percent on average during the first month of the pandemic, according to the report. Jobs carried out primarily by women — from domestic workers (caregiving and cleaning services) to the food and service industries — are likely to be “hit the hardest.” In Europe and Central Asia, more self-employed women (25 percent) reported job losses than men (21 percent).
“The pandemic is expected to push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 — 47 million of whom are women and girls,” stated the report. “This will increase the total number of women and girls living in extreme poverty to 435 million, with projections showing that this number will not revert to pre-pandemic levels until 2030.”
The report comes on the heels of an Aug. 31 virtual town hall during which the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that decades of progress for women and girls around the world may be lost due to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic.
Protecting the rights of women and girls during the #COVID19 crisis is a top priority for the @UN, and for me.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 31, 2020
Thank you to representatives from women’s civil society for a frank discussion, and for sharing your concerns and ideas for making gender equality a reality for all. pic.twitter.com/IiiaAkbUbH
“The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the considerable hurdles women face in achieving their rights and fulfilling their potential,” said Guterres. “Without a concerned response, we risk losing a generation or more of gains.”
Gender inequalities amplified during the pandemic
National Organization for Women (NOW) president Christian Nunes tells Yahoo Life: “From physical and emotional health impacts to economic [ones], the cost of this pandemic is taking the greatest toll on women because of existing gender inequalities that have been exacerbated.”
She continues: “When it comes to health, women, especially low-income women of color, immigrant communities, and domestic violence survivors are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These populations are at higher risk for contracting the virus because of their inability to self-isolate, and are also unable to access essential services and medical care because of discriminatory policies and systems.”
Dr. Uché Blackstock, emergency medicine physician, chief executive officer of Advancing Health Equity, and Yahoo News Medical Contributor, tells Yahoo Life that the pandemic has reinforced gender inequality in several ways. “First, women are more likely to work in lower-paying service jobs with little security and the pandemic has resulted in loss of employment,” she says. “They are also disproportionately represented in the healthcare workforce, which places them more at risk for becoming infected with coronavirus.”
With families more likely to be living, working, and attending school at home during the pandemic, that is also disproportionately impacting women since they are “more likely to take on household responsibilities like cleaning and child care (unpaid work), which leaves them less available for their own work,” says Blackstock.
Women are also often the ones caring for older parents, says Nunes. For single mothers whose children’s schools are closed, it can be particularly challenging. They “either have to find childcare or take-off work and stay home,” says Nunes. “For women without access to paid sick leave or paid family leave this could result in a massive loss of income. Women also make up a large percentage of part-time workers, who are least likely to have any kind of health care benefits or paid sick leave from their employer.”
In addition, women make up the majority of frontline healthcare workers — “with estimates as high as 70 percent,” according to Nunes — increasing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The UN report cites recent data from the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Spain that shows “confirmed COVID-19 cases among female health workers are two to three times higher than those observed among their male counterparts.”
As Bárbara Jiménez-Santiago, a human rights lawyer at Equality Now, points out, this isn’t confined to just one country or region. “Women and girls around the world are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Across the globe more women are employed in the informal economy, which has been especially hard hit by COVID-19 and is often not included in government relief packages; they are more likely to be the primary caretaker, forcing them to absorb increased duties as schools and daycares close; and they are disproportionately represented in industries and jobs deemed essential during the pandemic, putting them at increased risk of getting sick.”
Adds Jiménez-Santiago: “As with any crisis, we knew that gender would play a role in how individuals and communities experienced the pandemic. However, even we were shocked to discover just how dramatically and diversely COVID has exacerbated existing inequalities and sex-based discrimination.”
Domestic violence on the rise
The shutdowns during the pandemic have also created “dangerous conditions” for domestic violence survivors (most of whom are women), says Nunes. According to a statement by UN Women: “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.”
Jiménez-Santiago explains that most incidents of gender and sexual-based violence are committed by someone well known and physically close to the victim, such as a partner or ex-partner. “When governments instituted lockdowns, domestically abused women and children became trapped at home with their aggressors and were effectively cut off from their support networks,” she says.
With many domestic violence shelters forced to close or severely limit the number of people they could accept amid the pandemic, this eliminated a “crucial outlet for abused women who were financially dependent on their partners for housing,” says Jiménez-Santiago. “Schools also play a critical role in detecting and reporting suspected abuse and their closure meant that students were unable to speak to a trusted adult or spend time safely out of their homes.”
But even staying in shelters or group homes during the pandemic can pose some potential health risks, notes Nunes, since it may “put women in close quarters with others who have been exposed to the virus, thus increasing their own chances of infection. These women are left with few good options to protect themselves and their families.”
UN Women calls the increase in domestic violence amid coronavirus a “shadow pandemic” that requires a global collective effort to stop it. “As COVID-19 cases continue to strain health services, essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines, have reached capacity,” according to the entity. “More needs to be done to prioritize addressing violence against women in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.”
The pandemic’s ‘far-reaching consequences’ for women
Experts say the fallout from the pandemic will have long-lasting implications for women. “The pandemic has absolutely impacted the progress women have made and continue to strive for in every aspect of our society, magnifying all existing inequalities and structural issues in our nation,” says Nunes. “The most apparent implication for the future is the way we as a country view health care, paid sick leave and paid family leave.”
Nunes says that women are 10 times more likely to stay home with sick children than men. “So when there is a lack of access to affordable childcare during this time, it's often women who have to give up their source of income if their employer cannot accommodate or won’t allow teleworking. As a result, for those who may be staying home more long-term, it will become more and more challenging to re-enter the workforce.”
Blackstock agrees that the pandemic's impact on gender equality will have “far-reaching consequences.” “There's a strong possibility that we may see a reversal of the gains in equality women have made over the last decades, specifically in economic equality,” she says.
She adds: “We'll see decreased opportunities for employment, which will further increase the pay gap. Black women and other women of color will likely be more disproportionately impacted given many work in the service industry. Organizations will have to be innovative in their approaches with flexible home-work schedules, offering paid sick leave and promoting women employees.”
Jiménez-Santiago acknowledges that the global pandemic didn’t create gender inequality. “But it has exacerbated it and in some instances eroded the gains that have been so hard fought for,” she says. “Women have been forced out of jobs since they were unable to juggle full-time work while also providing full-time childcare. Girls, who were previously receiving an education, have been married off in order to provide financial relief for their families. The inability to access regular healthcare has forced women and girls to continue unwanted pregnancies or prevented them from receiving critical maternal health services.”
She says that the loss of a job, education, or reproductive autonomy all have long-term consequences for women and girls. “We will be feeling the direct and indirect ramifications of the pandemic for months, years, and perhaps even decades to come,” Jiménez-Santiago says. “It will take a committed and coordinated response from governments and policymakers to ensure that the gendered impacts of coronavirus don’t become the permanent new reality of millions of women and girls around the world.”
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