19 Nov 2020 Advocating a gender-equal post-pandemic world
By Marites N. Sison
A sampling of news headlines, five months after the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, shows media and institutions finally catching up to the gender dimensions of the novel coronavirus: Covid-19 crisis could set women back decades, experts fear; Why Covid-19 is a disaster for gender equality; Decades of progress on gender equality in the workplace at risk of vanishing; Women essential in fight against pandemic.
News media’s initial preoccupation with the five journalistic Ws – Who, What, When, Where, and Why – of the disease was understandable. The global health and economic crisis spawned by the virus was unlike anything most of us had ever experienced before, except, perhaps, those who lived through the global influenza pandemic of 1957-58.
The first accounts of how the novel coronavirus affects men and women differently focused mainly on medical outcomes. Initial studies that emerged from China’s Hubei province, where Covid-19 cases were first reported, noted that the virus appeared to be more fatal in men than women.
By early March 2020, the medical journal Lancet was among the first to call out the “concerning” absence of policies and public health efforts that address “the gendered impacts” of the disease: “We are not aware of any gender analysis of the outbreak by global health institutions or governments in affected countries or in preparedness phases,” said a March 6 article authored by Claire Wenham, Julia Smith, and Rosemary Morgan, on behalf of the Gender and Covid-19 Working Group.
Analysing how biology and gender norms are affecting the burden of Covid-19 “is a fundamental step to understanding the primary and secondary effects of a health emergency on different individuals and communities, and for creating effective, equitable policies and interventions,” they said.
They argued that it was not enough to account for immunological differences between the sexes, citing that data from China’s State Council Information Office – which showed that more than 90% of health-care workers in Hubei province are women – emphasized “the gendered nature of the health workforce and the risk that predominantly female health workers incur.”
School closures to stem Covid-19 transmission in China, Hong Kong, Italy, and South Korea – the first countries where the virus spread – were also bound to have “a differential effect on women, who provide most of the informal care within families, with the consequence of limiting their work and economic opportunities,” they said.
Lockdowns would pose “financial challenges and uncertainty for mostly female foreign domestic workers, many of whom travel in Southeast Asia between the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore,” they said. Gendered implications of quarantine must also be considered, given differences in women and men’s physical, cultural, security and sanitary needs, they added.
The authors also wondered why women “have not been fully incorporated into global health security surveillance, detection and prevention mechanism,” given their frequent frontline interactions with communities.
Women on the frontlines
Since many governments, institutions and people likely did not anticipate the extent to which the virus would upend the world as we know it, many failed to optimize what would have been an opportune time – International Women’s Day on March 8 – to call attention to the impacts of Covid-19 on women.
Except for some media, like BBC World, which published a story about how the “virus upheaval is hitting women in Asia” and the American news website, Axios, which reported a rise in domestic violence cases in China during the quarantine, most stories that day focused on commemorative rallies and how they were scaled back because of Covid-19.
The Axios article was an offshoot of a story published March 2 by an online Chinese news site, Sixth Tone, which reported a surge in domestic violence cases in February, weeks after several cities were put on lockdown to contain outbreaks. The BBC World article cited similar concerns raised by The Lancet – the double burden of longer work shifts and home care, the physical and emotional toll exacted on women frontline workers, and the precarious work status of migrant domestic helpers. It also named domestic violence and Covid-19’s long-term economic impact on women as major concerns. “The hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has been discussed more than 3,000 times on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo,” it noted.
Days after the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, more independent groups, NGOs and institutions began sounding the alarm about the “high risk” roles played by women during the pandemic, citing estimates that between 70 to 77% of the world’s healthcare workers are women; and 83% of the social care workforce. Women, they declared, are on the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19.
A week later, The Atlantic declared Covid-19 “a disaster for feminism,” and decried “the West’s failure to learn from history.” Academics who studied the Ebola crisis, and past outbreaks like SARS, swine flu, and bird flu had found that “they had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality,” it noted. And yet, the article lamented, these weren’t informing Covid-19 responses worldwide.
The Lancet piece had underscored the same thing earlier, noting that during the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, women were “more likely to be infected by the virus, given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and as frontline healthcare workers.”
Past outbreaks had also demonstrated that women were “less likely than men to have power in decision-making around the outbreak, and their needs were largely unmet,” it stressed.
Lessons that should have been learned during past outbreaks clearly weren’t practiced. Similar to what happened during the 2015 to 2016 Zika virus epidemic, critical resources and attention were diverted away from women’s reproductive and sexual health in many countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Violence Against Women (VAW): “A shadow pandemic”
On March 26, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia lamented that “while some voices have flagged the impacts on women, gender concerns are not yet shaping the decisions that mainly male leaders are making.”
It is “striking how many of the key decision-makers in the process of designing and executing the pandemic response are men,” she added. While there were “a few shining examples of women Heads of State or Government, women are conspicuous by their absence in decision-making fora in this pandemic.” Statistics from Women in Global Health bear this out; for example, while 70% of the global health workforce fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic are women, only 20% of the WHO emergency committee on Covid-19 are women. Meanwhile, women leaders – who make up less than 7% of the world’s leaders – have won praise for how they managed the pandemic in their own countries.
WHO would later issue guidelines on Covid-19 and violence against women (VAW), noting that “health workers, the majority of whom are women in many settings, may be at risk for violence in their homes or in the workplace.” VAW, said the WHO, “is a serious problem that may be exacerbated when health systems are under stress.”
More Western media began paying attention as activists reported an uptick in domestic violence cases after lockdowns were imposed and governments urged people to “stay home, save lives.”
On April 6, UN Women issued a statement calling violence against women and girls “a shadow pandemic.” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, said domestic shelters and helplines around the world were reporting higher calls for help as more countries went on lockdown. “Helplines in Singapore and Cyprus have registered an increase in calls by more than 30%,” she said. “In Australia, 40% of frontline workers in a New South Wales survey reported increased requests for help with violence that was escalating in intensity.”
Women’s rights activists and civil society organizations in Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States also flagged a “heightened demand for emergency shelter” for women and children fleeing domestic violence, said Mlambo-Ngcuka. Domestic violence cases – already at an alarming rate before the pandemic – are reported to have increased by 20% as people were trapped at home with their abuser during the lockdown.
The rise in domestic violence during the pandemic was not surprising, according to experts. “Times of economic uncertainty, civil unrest and disaster are linked to a myriad of risk factors for increased violence against women and children,” said a paper published by the Center for Global Development. “Pandemics are no exception.” The 2008 global financial crisis also saw a jump in domestic violence cases, it noted.
And yet, some governments were slow to respond. In Mexico, where violence against women and children are not uncommon, “a network of shelters in the country reported an 80% increase in the number of distress calls,” according to human rights activists. However, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied this, as well as his own interior secretary’s report that the first six months of 2020 had seen a 46% increase in emergency distress calls reporting domestic violence.
“The biggest setback in gender equality for a generation”
The economic fallout triggered by Covid-19 has severe implications for gender equality, experts warned. “Data shows that both women and men are experiencing downward changes in the availability of economic resources, but not equally,” according to a rapid assessment survey conducted by UN Women with governments and mobile network operators in 11 Asia-Pacific countries. “Most sources of income have decreased for at least 50% of the population. The gender gaps in income reductions are largest in family businesses, remittances, properties and savings, with women at a disadvantage.”
Women, regardless of whether they were employed in the formal or informal sector, suffered the largest drops in income from paid jobs (65% compared to 56% of men), the study said. They also had a larger share of reduction in paid hours (50% compared to 35% of men).
The pandemic had a disproportionate negative impact on women because among the hardest hit were the restaurant, retail, hospitality, and tourism industries, “service occupations with high female employment shares,” said a preliminary research by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S.
“From an economic perspective, low-paid, young, working-class women are known to be hit the hardest,” Natasha Mudhar, global chief executive of The World We Want, an enterprise working to accelerate the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, told the BBC. This inequality is compounded by a gender pay gap, said Mudhar.
The year 2020 was supposed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, described by UN Women as “the most visionary agenda for women’s rights and empowerment everywhere.” Instead of marking gender equality gains, experts are now lamenting big losses because of Covid-19.
“We are experiencing the biggest setback in gender equality for a generation,” writes Sofia Sprechmann, secretary-general of the humanitarian agency Care International, in an article published by the World Economic Forum. “This pandemic is having a deep impact on women and is throwing away decades of hard-won battles both in terms of gender equality and women’s economic rights.” She cites the impact on women entrepreneurs. “In Sri Lanka, 90% say their income has decreased and their supply chains are disrupted. In Guatemala, 96% do not have enough money to buy basic food items, and the same amount say the crisis has increased unemployment in their community,” said Sprechmann. “Many of these women are now truly on a cliff edge, at risk of hurtling right back into poverty. A devastating prospect after they’ve worked so hard to succeed.”
Again, many governments were slow on the uptake. Even Canada, whose government is regarded as more committed than most to gender equality, is still figuring out how it can help women get back on their feet.
The Prosperity Project, a new national non-profit organization created in the middle of the pandemic by 62 female leaders across Canada, said it had anticipated Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on women and has been investing in research to develop programs “to maintain women’s successful participation the economy.” Funding for this research came from members. “Ironically, there has been no response from government yet,” it said in August.
Media and Covid-19
With regard to the role that media has played during the pandemic, most news outlets have been lauded for fulfilling the essential task of providing the public with accurate and timely information. But they have also been called out for a lack of stories about the impact of Covid-19 on women and for not featuring women as experts and frontline actors. “Where are the women experts on Covid-19? Mostly missing,” lamented an article in the British Medical Journal, which observed that men were dominating public and academic discourse about Covid-19 and decisions about how to handle the pandemic. It cited a University of London study which found “2.7 male experts to every woman expert interviewed on six UK flagship news programmes” between February and March.
While there is so much that can be written about the pandemic, Ed Wasserman, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School for Journalism, expressed concern that because today’s newsrooms have been hobbled by layoffs, the focus has been on breaking news rather than in-depth coverage. “You’re looking at a news media complex that’s probably 40% weaker than it was a generation ago, in terms of bodies it can put in the field to tackle a difficult story,” said Wasserman.
In some cases, community media, particularly women’s radio, have stepped in to fill the gap. Mama FM, a women-focused radio station serving the underprivileged in Uganda, changed its programming to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic. In Ukraine, Hromadske Radio, a non-profit radio station created new programs that focused specifically on women’s issues such as domestic violence and child care.
Women and post-Covid-19 recovery
As governments and institutions look towards post-Covid rebuilding, there are calls not only to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating impact on women, but to put them at the front and centre of continuing response, as well as recovery efforts.
Women are key to getting their communities back on their feet, said Sofia Sprechmann. “Women entrepreneurs have overcome so many barriers to get their businesses thriving and to overcome poverty. And it is precisely these women that hold the power to face the gigantic task ahead,” she said. “We’ve seen it with the Ebola crisis, with women from war-torn countries, and we know we will see it after this pandemic. Women can and will elevate their communities back out of poverty, rebuilding what they have lost, and they urgently need our support and help.”
A UN policy brief on the impact of Covid-19 and women noted that the social and economic impacts of the pandemic “have created a global crisis unparalleled in the history of the United Nations – and one which requires a whole-of-society response to match its sheer scale and complexity.”
Any response, whether at the local, national or international level, “will be significantly weakened if it does not factor in the ways in which inequalities have made all of us more vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis. Or, if we choose to simply repeat past policies and fail to use this moment to rebuild more equal, inclusive and resilient societies,” it added.
Civil society and grassroots organizations must seize this opportunity to help build a post-pandemic world that is gender-equal. As an initial step, they can pressure their own governments, businesses, and national and international institutions to apply a gender lens to continuing response and recovery efforts, offer their own solutions and demand seats at the table.
Marites N. Sison is a freelance journalist and communications consultant for WACC Global. She has more than three decades of experience in journalism, and has reported on human rights, social justice, immigration, gender equality, politics, foreign affairs and religion.