The year 2020 will perhaps be remembered as the year when life as we know it collapsed. The Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, dealt an unexpected jolt to our lifestyles, claiming over a million lives and bringing the world to a sudden standstill. Despite making countless major and minor adjustments to our daily lifestyles and work situations, we continue struggling to come to terms with these extraordinary times. And like many other spheres of life, this crisis has affected men and women differently. Women have been more vulnerable in the face of this unprecedented catastrophe that has turned lives upside down in 2020.
Women in developing countries
The Covid-19 has hit developing countries harder than it has hit the developed world. For the developing countries, it has presented the dilemma-life versus livelihood. While going out for work poses the risk of contracting the virus, staying at home warrants the potential loss of livelihood. And while lockdowns mean working from home for white-collar workers, for many day-to-day wage earners, it means an abrupt stop to their sole sources of livelihoods.
While there is already a disparity between the problems being faced by the developing and the developed world due to Covid-19, women have been rendered particularly more vulnerable in this already unequal and capricious situation. There are growing concerns that because of the pandemic, gender-based inequalities around the world will increase, pushing back the progress that has been made in achieving the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) - Gender Equality.
How the pandemic has affected women
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit women severely in the following sectors:
• Globally, more women - 70 per cent - have been on the frontline in the healthcare profession and hence, at a greater risk of exposure to the virus.
• And although more men are dying due to Covid-19, the broader impacts of this crisis are endangering women's lives and livelihoods disproportionately. The mortality of men has been higher during the pandemic. So, when the main or prominent breadwinner of the family dies, the burden falls on the women to fill in the shoes of the breadwinner in addition to continuing with their care-giving roles.
• Also, the pandemic has put tremendous pressure on healthcare providing services. As a result, many women have been suffering from unavailability of healthcare services, including reproductive and sexual health. For example, there are women in labour who are being denied medical attention due to overcrowding at the hospitals.
• There are always school dropouts when an epidemic strikes. Past instances of crises have shown that girls are far less likely to return to school than boys. Moreover, with 850 million children around the world staying at home and not going to school due to the spread of the virus, the additional burden has continued to primarily fall on the women. As schools and childcare facilities shut down in response to Covid-19, women are further saddled with increased childcare responsibilities, piling on an already uneven load.
Jobs and employment
• 60 per cent of women's employment is in the informal economy that has limited protection against dismissal and inadequate access to social protection. Even the formal women-led sectors such as: hospitality, restaurants, stores, etc. have lost a lot of revenue during the pandemic and as a result, countless women have been laid off. This was seen in the readymade garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh. The country's RMG sector employs around 4.1 million low-income workers, among whom 85 per cent are women. At the onset of the pandemic, multiple international buyers of readymade garments from Bangladesh cancelled orders, so several RMG factories were forced to shut down. This created a rift between major factory owners and international brands that they had contracts with, however, there is limited legal recourse in Bangladesh for factories to claim from the international retailers to fulfill the terms of their contracts. This was a major catastrophe since thousands of RMG factory workers were laid off. However, later the government of Bangladesh announced a stimulus package of USD 588 million for the RMG factories to help them cover the wages of the workers.
• Eventually, a reverse problem arose, however, when some international buyers decided to buy the readymade garments they had already ordered for and then several factories reopened amidst the pandemic. Hundreds of workers rushed back to work again during the pandemic putting at risk their own lives and the lives of those they lived with.
• Finally, intimate partner violence saw a significant increase- up to 25 per cent - in some countries due to lockdowns. While the abuse from the abusers heightened with the sudden unexpected strain brought about by the pandemic, lockdown, unemployment, etc., the victims, on the other hand, experienced limited access to support services during periods of quarantine.
So, what can be done?
It is evident that the Covid-19 has hit women hard, especially in the developing countries, where the multifaceted predicaments of the pandemic seem to be going particularly against women. However, some effective measures can be taken to mitigate the adverse effects of Covid-19 on women:
• Domestic violence has seen an alarming increase because of forced lockdowns. And while forced lockdowns might entail that domestic violence support centres are not active all the time, services such as domestic violence hotlines and call centres should be active and readily available to help such victims.
• Since most of the frontline healthcare workers are female, it is of utmost importance that they are provided with adequate protection that keeps them safe. In the long run, this would mean giving them the first priority in access to a Covid-19 vaccine. But now, it entails supplying them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The PPE that hospitals use is often designed for men, even though 70 per cent of healthcare workers are female. Therefore, manufacturers should design PPE that is appropriate for women and hospitals and clinics should buy enough of them.
• According to World Bank estimates, over one billion people have received Covid-related emergency cash transfers from their governments to meet basic needs since the crisis began. Yet the most economically marginalized people - especially the women - often remained invisible to their governments - since they were less likely to have a formal identification or own a mobile phone to receive digital transfers and hence, missed out on these benefits. For example, the government of Bangladesh had announced a stimulus package for 5.0 million people but ultimately, the package had only reached up to 3.5 million people. This is because the transfer was implemented through formal banking channels which did not have proper outreach to the remote areas of the country. What the government of Bangladesh could have done was to utilise the vast network of microfinance institutions which have strong presence in the remote areas reaching the last mile people. So, an effective way to identify the right target groups would be to use the appropriate linkages of grassroots-level NGOs, whose deep understanding of marginalized populations would make sure that no woman is left behind.
• Finally, a holistic approach to tackle Covid-19 should be arranged through partnership among government, private sector, and civil society tapping into each actor's unique strengths. And women - particularly, women from diverse backgrounds - must be adequately represented in all these dialogues.
Women have historically faced harder choices in most spheres of life. And while massive strides have been made in the past decades in multiple socioeconomic domains to help them move forward, the Covid-19 pandemic might have just shifted the move backwards, widening the gender gap. However, learning from the lessons of the pandemic thus far and with some well-thought measures, the damage can still be controlled and women can be better equipped to deal with the impact of this extraordinary crisis.
Babui Salsabil is a development practitioner from Bangladesh with experience in various development projects within South Asia. Her areas of expertise are in women's economic empowerment, financial inclusion, private sector engagement in development to promote economic and social inclusion. Currently, Babui is pursuing her Master's in Global Human Development (GHD) at Georgetown University at Washington DC, USA. Her email is:
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