The novel coronavirus seems to be more deadly for men. But in many other ways, women are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.
From a spike in domestic violence and restricted access to family-planning services to disproportionate economic impact, the lockdown measures put in place to stop the outbreak are hurting women and their basic rights a lot more than men. Previous epidemics of Ebola and Zika have resulted in major setbacks for women and girls in the regions most affected by the outbreaks – and experts and activists are warning the same thing is happening globally right now.
A CNN analysis earlier this year found that in the countries for which data was available, men were 50% more likely than women to die after being diagnosed with Covid-19. But experts say focusing purely on health data is dangerous.
“We think about this crisis in very narrow terms, only focusing on the health impacts, but we’re missing the bigger picture,” said Julia Smith, a researcher at the Simon Fraser University in Canada. Smith is working on a multi-year project looking at the wider impact of the pandemic.
“Men are having worse health outcomes if they become infected, but when we think about the secondary impacts, here we see that women are being disproportionately affected,” she added.
The pandemic is worsening problems women were facing even before it started. “Crises like this exacerbate already existing structural inequalities in society – when it comes to women’s rights, women’s health, and women’s economic status, this is exactly what we are seeing now,” said Kristina Lunz, co-founder of The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.
Women’s rights as an afterthought
Smith said that when marginalized groups are underrepresented at the decision-making table, their rights and needs are often forgotten. “And unfortunately, women’s rights are almost always an afterthought in any crisis situation,” she said.
As the virus started spreading around the world, many governments abruptly announced strict lockdowns, confining most citizens to their homes. While this helped slow down the outbreak, authorities in a number of countries recorded a worrying consequence: spikes in domestic violence.
Many activists say it was painfully obvious that such abuse would increase in a lockdown situation. Numerous studies have shown that stressful events such as economic downturns or natural disasters often lead to higher instances of gender-based violence.
“Imagine all the women that have been locked down with a man that is causing them harm … many of these women have reported this to the police before, they could have been reached out to and taken away before the confinement started,” said Elena Marbán Castro, a fellow at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
Yet in the vast majority of countries, domestic violence was not something governments addressed in any way when announcing the policy. “This should be a top-of-the-mind, completely natural thing for governments to be prioritizing,” said Megan O’Donnell, an assistant director of the Gender Program at the Center for Global Development.
“When we think about pandemic preparedness, the same way we should be thinking of having enough front-line health workers or protective equipment, we should be thinking about any quarantine or social distancing measures having impact on gender based violence, especially within the family.”
Some governments did step in once the problem become apparent. The French government said it would pay for 20,000 nights in hotel rooms for victims and opened pop-up counseling centers at supermarkets. It launched a campaign encouraging women to report violence using code words.
“But these women have already experienced the violence … we need to respond to the issue before the rates go up,” Smith said.
Marbán Castro said the lockdown has also hindered access to family planning, with health systems in many countries overwhelmed by coronavirus. Elsewhere, the lockdowns limit their physical ability to seek help.
In the US, several states’ officials opted to include elective abortions in the medical procedures limited during the coronavirus outbreak.
This has potentially dangerous effects. Studies have shown that the number of stillbirths and maternal deaths increased in some countries hit by Ebola, because women were unable to access the appropriate services.
And the lack of access to family planning has long-term consequences that will be felt beyond the pandemic, according to Lunz. “Whenever women do not have control over their own bodies, over how many children they want and when they want to have a family, these women and their children and their families are kept in poverty.”
Data so far is showing that the economic consequences of the pandemic are also harsher for women. One example: 55% of the Americans who have lost their jobs in March and April were women, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
“A lot of the industries that are being most affected by the outbreak – tourism and other service industries, care work sector – those industries tend to be dominated by women,” Smith said.
And while many countries have stepped in to provide help to people who lost their jobs, many women are likely slipping through the cracks. “When you think about economic recovery, we’ll need to consider that bailout packages focus just on formal employment and women are disproportionately informal workers, so we need to think about how should we be targeting them,” O’Donnell said.
At the same time, many more women than men have found themselves on the front lines of the battle against the virus. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of the global health and social care workers are women.
Women around the world are also still responsible for the majority of unpaid childcare and housework. According to estimates by the UN, women spend on average 4.1 hours a day doing unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 1.7 hours spent by men.
There is no hard data showing the impact of schools being closed on working mothers, but anecdotal evidence is piling in. Some academic journals say there has been a slump in submissions by women since the lockdowns started. Submissions by men have gone up.
Single parents, most of whom are women, are hit hardest by school closures. Lunz said the crisis will likely affect women’s careers in the long term, setting back the quest for equality. “What we know from history, when women do not have access to resources and are not independent and cannot sustain themselves, they are dependent on someone else.”
‘Not thinking about anyone else’
The pandemic has also presented some world leaders with an opportunity to grab more power, sparking fears among women’s rights activists and researchers.
“Autocratic leaders and toxic leaders are always the biggest threat to women’s rights,” Lunz said.
“That is what history shows, and that’s what we are seeing now, looking at Viktor Orban for example, it was last week that the parliament in Hungary, where his party has a majority, passed the law which restricts the country from making the Istanbul Convention from becoming law.” The Istanbul Convention is the world’s first legally binding treaty entirely dedicated to combating violence against women.
Lunz, Marbán Castro, Smith and O’Donnell all said the current crisis shows exactly why women need to be “at the table” when decisions are made. Many have pointed out that countries led by women appear to be doing well in their fights against the pandemic.
“The whole situation is crazy,” Marbán Castro said. “Before we put in a measure, we have to think how it’s going to affect all the people in our society – women, children, minorities, homeless people … this has not happened, the measures have been put in for and by middle-aged men who are not thinking about anyone else.”