The Pixel Project is pleased to present the annual guest “16 For 16” article from our partner, Breakthrough – a global human rights organisation working to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. Their cutting-edge multimedia campaigns, community mobilisation, agenda setting, and leadership training equip men and women worldwide to challenge the status quo and take bold action for the dignity, equality, and justice of all.
This year, Breakthrough India shares a list of 16 ways that the COVID-19 pandemic affected the well-being and human rights of women and girls and how these issues can be addressed.
At the beginning of 2020, the world as we know it changed. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, people’s lives were impacted in ways we had never expected. Masks and vaccines became dinner table topics, people kept count of COVID-19 cases and mortalities, and many changed how they worked. It cannot be denied that everyone felt the impact of the pandemic.
However, as with all crisis situations, the pandemic hit vulnerable populations the hardest, including women. Along with the fear of contracting the virus, women also faced the excess burden of office work, housework, and taking care of family members, all of which added mental stress that also affected their physical health. With lockdowns and social distancing, there was an increase in domestic and intimate partner violence as women had to live with their abuser under the same roof.
In this article, we talk about 16 ways in which women were affected by the pandemic across four key areas and the measures that can be taken to address these challenges because the pandemic made clear how little women’s issues factor into crisis planning. Going forward, women’s issues, needs, and violence against women need to be part of our emergency response systems. The more we depriotise women’s issues, the more likely it is that the next time something like this happens–and a next time is coming, whether we like it or not–the consequences will be much more severe and unmanageable. It’s up to us to solve the problem.
Written by Breakthrough India.
Violence Against Women
Pandemic Impact on Women #1: Rise in Domestic Violence
Intimate partner violence is one of the chief sources of violence against women (VAW) across the world, affecting 1 in 3 women. During the pandemic lockdowns, many women were trapped at home with their abusers, so it is unsurprising that the number of domestic violence (DV) cases went up exponentially worldwide. In India, for example, in the first year of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, DV cases showed a sharp spike and these were only the reported ones. To counter the rise of DV during the pandemic, countries across the world tried a wide range of solutions including: setting up warning systems at grocery shops and pharmacies so survivors can get help; ensuring DV helplines have online chat and texting options so survivors can contact them safely; and having courts conduct virtual hearings for DV survivors.
Pandemic Impact on Women #2: Rise in Child Marriage
Just one year after pandemic began, the world was warned that 10 million more girls are at the risk of child marriage by 2031 because of pandemic-related economic stress, school closures, and parental deaths. As child marriage in deeply rooted in many countries, the long-term solution lies in changing people’s behavioural patterns. GirlsNotBrides, a global organisation working to end child marriage, has shared a list of recommendations actions for countering child marriage during pandemics including implementing distance learning programmes for girls affected by school closures; schools meeting girls’ reproductive health needs such as providing sanitary napkins and clean bathrooms for girls; and providing economic relief to the poorest households.
Pandemic Impact on Women #3: Lack of access to Women’s Support Services
While countries were busy firefighting COVID-19, support services that women depended on for help escaping VAW such as DV helplines and women’s shelters, have remained underfunded, understaffed, and struggling to meet the spike in VAW during lockdowns. As a result, many survivors had little to no recourse to assistance. To adapt to pandemic-specific challenges, many DV agencies started providing online chat and texting options while courts in a number of countries began holding virtual hearings for domestic violence cases. Nevertheless, it is not an all-encompassing solution as the problem of access remains for marginalised women, rural women, and women in developing nations without the necessary tech infrastructure.
Pandemic Impact on Women #4: VAW was Not Integrated into the Pandemic Response
As illustrated in by the lack of inclusion of support services for women in the COVID-19 pandemic response, women’s issues are not part of the emergency planning process of the majority of countries despite past evidence that VAW increases during crisis and emergency situations. Moving forward, women’s issues, needs, and the realities of violence against women must be incorporated into global emergency responses, from ensuring the prioritisation of women’s health to creating reporting mechanisms for VAW that are not tech-dependent and can be accessed by marginalised women. Development agencies like Plan International recommend consulting women and girls in the emergency planning process, interacting with multiple stakeholders to identify potential hazards at a planning stage, and making gender-inclusive strategies to ensure all scenarios are covered. Governments that are serious about including the needs of women and girls in their disaster and emergency planning can also look at Australia’s national gender and emergency guidelines as a starting point.
Pandemic Impact on Women #5: Loss of Mobility and Access to Public Spaces
The lockdowns resulted in another devastating development for many women –restrictions on mobility meant loss of access to public spaces like schools, childcare centres, and workplaces. This resulted in childcare and other family caregiving responsibilities falling almost entirely on women’s shoulders, trapping them at home even when lockdowns are lifted. In conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia where, until 2018, women were not allowed to drive themselves without a male guardian’s approval, the pandemic was a set-back for women’s hard-won victory for women’s travel outside the home. There is no single solution but a starting point could be what Eva Garcia-Chueca a Senior Researcher on Global Cities at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) proposes: that post-pandemic cities can and should become female-friendly spaces by building public care services such as creches and parenting spaces which will also contribute towards creating employment.
Pandemic Impact on Women #6: The Double Burden of Labour
With the lockdown, as workplaces shifted into our homes, women found themselves having to juggle housework, childcare, and looking after spouses and other family members. For women with careers, this doubled their burden of labour. This is especially apparent in countries like India where “women spend 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services while men spend 97 minutes.” A recent Breakthrough survey asked: what happens when (in times such as COVID) a female family member falls sick? Although the responses showed some agreement that other members of the household should take over chores and caregiving, 9% of the respondents stated that “women were expected to or had no choice but to continue working despite being ill”. With the pandemic gradually easing and more people returning to workplaces outside the home, this gender gap needs to be closed for women to be able to return to the workforce. One solution would be for the government to monetise domestic work. For example, in Sweden, families are given tax breaks to encourage them to hire maid services. The Swedish government designed this policy to encourage more women to remain in the labour market while raising the wages, status and protection for women working in these domestic jobs.
Pandemic Impact on Women #7: Disproportionate Losses of Jobs and Income
With women taking on the bulk of the childcare and domestic work responsibilities during the pandemic, many of them (especially marginalised women) downsized their careers or left work completely. As reported by Mckinsey, 2 million women stepped back from their careers in 2020 alone. In countries like India, this impact has been even more drastic: 91% of Indian women work in the informal sector which was dealt a devastating blow by the pandemic lockdowns, curbing many women’s livelihoods. According to UN Women, the pandemic will push 47 million more women into poverty worldwide as “the dual crises of job loss and caregiving compound to jeopardise women’s financial security.” Though there is a need for immediate action to bring back women’s participation in the workforce, a long-term plan for better pay and leave policies in the workplace and facilities for child care and caregiving needs to be put in place so that women (including mothers) can return to the work during and post pandemic.
Pandemic Impact on Women #8: The Gendered Digital Divide
Prior to COVID-19, girls and women from marginalised communities had less access to the internet and technology than boys and men. COVID-19 has widened the digital gap. According to a report by UN Women, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls, and among those who do own phones, boys are more likely than girls to own smartphones. This lack of access to phones has had a deadly gendered impact during the pandemic: millions of girls and women from marginalised communities who faced VAW were cut off from helplines. There needs to be a plan where people across gender and class lines have equal access to the internet, starting with systemic and policy level change to ensure equal digital inclusion. A report by the OECD on bridging the gendered digital divide notes that in order to overcome this at the systemic level, governments need to have long-term policies that actively prioritise the education of girls and dismantling barriers to women’s entry into the workforce as schools and workplaces are where women and girls are able to access technology.
Pandemic Impact on Women #9: Falling Through the Gendered Digital Learning Gap
With digital learning being the name of the game during the pandemic, the gendered digital divide and poor internet access meant even fewer educational opportunities for girls, especially in developing nations and rural areas. Most families in such countries and communities either had one shared smartphone or none at all. They also often had very limited access to the internet. We need to focus not only on bringing infrastructure to the most poverty-stricken areas but also in spreading digital literacy to those families. There are short-term solutions that can be relatively quickly implemented such as technology companies donating smartphones, laptops, and digital access to girls. For example, Sampark collaborated with Women in Tech to distribute 120 laptops for girls during the pandemic. While these measures are welcome, there is work needs to be done on a larger scale to improve digital penetration in developing countries like India.
Pandemic Impact on Women #10: Increase in Dropout Rates in School among Adolescent Girls
With the lockdowns and school closures, adolescents, especially girls, had to drop out of school. According to the Malala Fund, 20 million more girls could drop out of school as a result of the pandemic. This is catastrophic because education is key to enabling girls to build better lives by attaining financial independence as adults and be less vulnerable to VAW including child marriage, forced marriage, and DV. What will it take to bring back girls to school? One of the recommendations by UNICEF and UNESCO to their partners in education is to ensure girls have equal access to distance-learning programmes including online, television, radio, and take-home learning kits. Additionally, the health and safety of adolescent girls need to be prioritised while re-enrolling girls in schools.
Pandemic Impact on Women #11: The Vaccination Gender Gap
As vaccination campaigns began worldwide, it emerged that women were lagging behind in vaccination rates, especially in developing countries like India where it was discovered that 28 million more men than women had been vaccinated. 32% of respondents to Breakthrough India’s survey believe men have greater need for vaccines because “they have to go outside more”. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “understanding how gender roles, norms and relations and gender inequality influence access to, and demand for, vaccines in different contexts is critical for expanding reach.” Economist Rohini Pande co-authored a report that recommends steps that countries and communities can take to close this gender gap including working through multiple frontline workers to reach women including healthcare workers, leaders of women’s groups, and government officials; using traditional media such as TV to circumvent the digital divide; and ensuring adequate supplies of vaccine.
Pandemic Impact on Women #12: The Myth of Vaccine-caused Infertility
Another reason for the vaccination gender gap is vaccine hesitancy caused by the myth of vaccine-caused infertility. This myth may be rooted in the fact that initial research for the vaccines did not account for women’s reproductive health. Subsequent research proving that the vaccine has no impact on women’s fertility were only released in mid-2021 or later, by which time the damage had been done. When responding to a new disease (like COVID-19), it is important to not regard the male body as the default. Teresa Ferretti, a neuroimmunologist at the Medical University of Vienna, says researchers should consider the effects of exclusion and discrimination when developing vaccines, drugs, and the trials to test them. If the infertility myth is still circulating in your community, check out how initiatives in countries including Angola, Malawi, Madagascar, Ecuador, Vietnam, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have deployed effective customised strategies for combatting vaccine myths… and apply it to your own community.
Pandemic Impact on Women #13: The Treatment of Frontline Healthcare Workers
In many countries, frontline healthcare workers largely consist of women. They are the first line of defense against the pandemic, often reaching little known and remote places and arming populations with information about hygiene protocols. Even though healthcare workers play an important role in combatting the pandemic, they receive very little social security while also being at a much higher risk of infection. Consequently, many of them are dealing with pandemic-related burnout and mental health issues while also being underpaid and overworked. In India, the parliamentary committee on labour has asked for their wage conditions to be formalised as a first step towards improving their condition and providing them additional social protections. On a global level, the WHO has launched the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative to support equal pay and aims to protect healthcare workers by providing safe and decent working conditions, including access to COVID-19 vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE), and protection against sexual harassment and violence at work.
Pandemic Impact on Women #14: Disproportionate Mental Health Impact
Studies published after the first COVID-19 wave noted that the mental health impact of the pandemic has been greater than previously perceived, especially for women, who make up the bulk of frontline workers and who face the double burden of office work, housework, and caregiving in the family. During the pandemic, women in the role of caregivers, either at home or in health care, have been at higher risk of mental health problems like depression, burnout, and anxiety. To improve women’s health and wellbeing, their diverse health needs have to be addressed even beyond the pandemic. Stacy Lindau, MD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Medicine-Geriatrics at UChicago Medicine, who studied the impact of the pandemic on women’s mental health, proposed that “ensuring equitable access to the basics would be a powerful buffer against mental illness in general and could help mitigate costly and painful mental health crisis among women and everyone who depends on [women] in the context of this and other public health emergencies.”
Pandemic Impact on Women #15: Lack of Access to Nutrition for Girls and Women
Nutrition for women and girls is always a concern in developing countries like India, where 50% of women are anaemic. During lockdown, nutrition for girls suffered as a result of their inability to obtain required iron and folic acid tablets. This begins in the home where the idea of women eating the least and only once everyone is done eating (frequently eating only leftovers) contributes to their poor health. On a public health level, it is important to increase food security for women during emergencies like COVID-19 as they bear the brunt of domestic work and caregiving labour alongside their paid work. In India, steps that the government can take to combat women’s health-related problems include providing access to more regular health check-ups for women and access to staple foods such as wheat, rice, and lentils in public ration shops. Additionally, UNICEF has recommended organising food distribution close to homes/communities to facilitate women’s access as well as introducing or expanding gender-responsive social protection programmes (such as in-kind food, vouchers, cash) and other emergency economic schemes to cover the needs of at-risk women in food insecure households.
Pandemic Impact on Women #16: Lack of Access to Menstruation Hygiene Products
Last but not least, COVID-19 emergency protocols in most countries did not take periods into consideration, thereby disrupting women’s supply to menstruation products. In India, women and girls, particularly in rural areas, had difficulty sourcing menstrual hygiene products and the taboos surrounding menstruation may have even intensified, especially with everyone being stuck at home. To include menstruation in pandemic response, we must first talk openly about menstrual health and hygiene. UNICEF has provided a list of recommendations to deal with disruption to menstrual health supplies during the pandemic such as including menstrual hygiene supplies as a part of non-food supplies distributed to women and girls; ensuring timely and adequate information is available about the impact of the COVID-19 on menstruation; and providing basic facilities (bathrooms, toilets etc) among camp and institutions where women and girls can access them.
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