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COVID-19 and its implications for women

By Bineswaree Aruna Bolaky and Darsheenee Ramnauth
25 May 2020
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COVID-19 and its implications for women

In a recent op-ed, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook drew attention to the “double-double shift” that COVID-19 is imposing on women.[1] Women have multiple roles in society. They have a role as income earners in the professional economic space in addition to being unpaid care providers in the private social space while in some countries they are “solution-providers” on how to palliate to a lack of access to basic services in the home such as energy and water. COVID-19 is forcing many women in the world to work from home while having at the same time to care for their families – their children, spouses and elderly – and handle household chores. In situations where, domestic violence and physical abuse prevail, aggravated by male spouses who have lost jobs and are becoming frustrated, some women are facing more than a double-double shift; they are fast becoming major silent second-round sufferers of the COVID-19 plight.

In developing countries, where access to health and surrogate care, social protection and psycho-social support systems and basic services are limited and prevalence of diseases is high, the burden on women can be significant and is likely to be made higher with the onslaught of COVID-19. In poor parts of the world, women are called upon to care for the sick in the absence of affordable and accessible health care facilities. Looking at the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2020 World Health Statistics, we find that in Africa, for instance, density of doctors (per 10,000 population) is a paltry 3.0 compared to 8.1 in South-East Asia, 24.0 in the region of the Americas, 34.1 in Europe and 15.6 globally. The lack of proper water-based sanitation worsens the plight of women as care-bearers when poor sanitation aggravates diseases. COVID-19 has highlighted the critical role that access to water plays in combating health -related illnesses. In Africa, the proportion of the population using a handwashing facility with soap and water is around 28 per cent, based on 2017 data, compared to 60 per cent in South-East Asia and globally. The proportion of the population using safely-managed drinking-water services stands at 28 per cent in Africa compared to 49 per cent in the Americas, 68 per cent in Europe and 45 per cent globally. In Africa there are risks that COVID-19 renders people who are exposed to current communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases such as tuberculosis even more vulnerable. In the absence of proper health care facilities, African women including female health care workers are at the forefront of the fight against the disease.

With lockdowns and economic stoppages, women are at a relatively higher risk of losing their jobs. Many women are crammed in the most labor-intensive, low-income sectors of the economy (for example, formal labor-intensive sectors of manufacturing and tourism, informal cross-border trade, and petty services). These sectors are most exposed to suffering from economic restrictions such as lockdowns, international travel and international trade and global value-chain restrictions. In Bangladesh falls in demand for the ready-made garments industry, associated with a slump in U.S. demand is exposing women to significant job and income losses. The impact of COVID-19 on the state of labor-intensive manufacturing and tourism risk slowing down the transition of women around the world from the informal sector towards the formal sector where wages are higher and social protection exists – with possibilities therefore of narrowing the gender wage gap and closing losses to GDP due to gender bias.

Gender-based inequality in access to secondary and tertiary education, amidst potential gender-based discrimination in hiring, firing and promotion, condemns some women to the low-income, more economically precarious jobs, that at times of economic shocks are the first to be cut. In many developing countries, unemployment benefits for formal and informal workers are either low or inexistent while social protection systems are inadequate in coverage and additionally, schemes targeted at women, and those who are in single-headed households are lacking. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that about 85.8 per cent of Africa’s employed are in the informal sector. The share of the employed in the informal sector is higher for women than men: 89.7 per cent for women relative to 82.7 per cent for men, and if we look only at non-agricultural employment, the share is 78.6 per cent for women and 67.7 per cent for men. Lockdowns and stoppages due to COVID-19 will impede many women in Africa from earning a living, and this without recourse to social protection.

The ILO World Social Protection Report 2017-2019 reveals a dearth of gender-disaggregated data when it comes to social protection in Africa. On the indicator of percentage of unemployed receiving unemployment benefits (SDG indicator 1.3.1), data are not available by gender in any of the African countries. It also reveals a lack of adequate social protection policies for the unemployed and informal workers: 26 African countries do not for instance have an unemployment programme anchored in legislation and most African countries do not cover the self-employed. Reductions in women’s incomes bear negatively on the allocation of family resources towards health and education relative to consumption goods. Research indicates that women within households tend to spend a relatively higher share of their incomes on items for children and general family use while men spend a relatively higher share on cigarettes and alcohol. There are real gender-based differences in household expenditure patterns. Female sex workers, bereft of their means of livelihood, are being driven to destitution (for example in South Africa) and remain invisible to national authorities in the design of government mitigation measures, in light of the illegality of their trade.

Issues of domestic violence have been reported to be on the rise. The physical confinement makes many women victims of an increased number of intimate partner violence and gender-based violence due to increased physical proximity and interaction. A similar pattern was also observed during the Ebola crisis. Furthermore, due to the lockdown in several places and limitations of movement, women who are victims of intimate partner violence cannot seek help and fall into a quagmire of both physical and mental abuse. Due to the re-allocation of resources to combatting the COVID19, women are also unable to access the already limited services such as HIV and AIDS medication, maternal healthcare, ante and neonatal care and sexual and reproductive rights.

The question that seems to be relevant is: are existing legal systems strong enough to provide justice to the women who have been victims of domestic violence, losing their source of income and handling added household responsibilities? The state has a responsibility towards its most vulnerable populations and the test of COVID-19 demands that a holistic, all-inclusive approach is pursued on the response front to ensure that adequate and effective mechanisms and policies are put in place to minimize the gendered impact of the pandemic on women, in addition to children and the aged.

The United Nations has been at the forefront of raising awareness on the gendered impact of COVID-19 and the necessity for gendered policy responses. These are contained in the recent UN policy brief on pdf The Impact of COVID-19 on Women (691 KB) . Crises exacerbate inequalities of all types, including gender-based inequalities. Crises also expose the vulnerabilities inherent in male-dominant societies. Policies for the promotion of gender equality should consider the asymmetric impact of economic shocks on women and men. The COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the central importance of SDG 3 focused on health – improving health systems and enhancing health funding - on the achievement of SDG 5 focused on gender equality. As the world aims to build back better post-COVID, governments, private sector and civil society have an opportunity to integrate a gender-lens in their post-COVID resilience building efforts and strengthen gender-based analysis and responses in the conduct of their daily affairs. By paying special attention to gender-based statistics, the effectiveness of COVID-19 related gender-based measures and responses can be more effectively tracked and evaluated over time. A good starting point lies in the development of gender-disaggregated data on social protection coverage in all countries. Additionally, COVID-19 has squarely reminded policy makers that “getting the basics right”, that is promoting access to basic services such as water, health, energy and sanitation remains an integral part of addressing gender-based inequalities.


[1] https://fortune.com/2020/05/07/coronavirus-women-sheryl-sandberg-lean-in-employers-covid-19/

About the Author(s)

Bineswaree Aruna Bolaky

Bineswaree Aruna Bolaky

Bineswaree Aruna Bolaky is an Economic Affairs Officer at the UNECA Sub-regional office for Southern Africa.

Darsheenee Ramnauth

Darsheenee Ramnauth

Darsheenee Ramnauth is a Social and Cultural Affairs Officer at the COMESA Secretariat, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

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