In the latest in its series on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) looks at how COVID-19 has increased gender inequality and the need to tackle multiple forms of disadvantage in the global South
Lamented as a ‘disaster for feminism,’ COVID-19 has magnified and exacerbated several inequalities including gender inequality. Men often have higher rates of mortality and COVID-19 hospitalisations than women. At the same time, the pandemic’s social and economic impacts have been particularly dire for women and girls. Due to COVID-19, 47m more women globally will live in poverty in 2021. The pandemic led to a profoundly gender-inequitable combination of declining paid work—women are overrepresented in informal jobs and hard-hit sectors like tourism—with increased caring burdens and limited childcare.
COVID-19’s burdens for women and girls can differ based on local contexts, policy interventions, and intersectional disadvantages. Particularly vulnerable groups may include migrant female workers, women with disabilities, displaced people, and younger men and women (who are at greater risk of lost livelihoods). The pandemic’s multiple threats to women’s livelihoods
and well-being, as outlined below, will urgently require locally-grounded research and inclusive interventions co-designed with women, men, girls, and boys.
Short and long-term impacts on women and girls
Lockdowns were associated with alarming evidence of heightened violence against women and girls, which remains under-reported. Many still struggle to access women’s refuges and maternal healthcare services that were already underfunded before the pandemic. This could have major long-term consequences, such as an uptick in unsafe births and rising numbers of girls leaving school early.
There is much that we still do not know on COVID-19’s impacts due to the lack of disaggregated data on age, sex, race/ethnicity, disability, and socioeconomic factors. Policymakers urgently require more detailed information to support a gender-equitable recovery.
COVID-19, women’s employment, and unpaid care burdens
Women’s employment has fallen more sharply than men’s and may recover more slowly. Many women and men in the global South work in the informal economy, where adequate healthcare, sick leave, and other social protections are rare. Both male and female informal workers faced stark choices between staying at home with a risk of going hungry, or violating coronavirus restrictions if they go to work. But it is women who are typically concentrated in highly precarious informal jobs; many women work in sectors that were especially affected like retail, hospitality and the food trade.
Women also comprise over 70% of the healthcare sector globally, including community health workers and other frontline providers at elevated risk of COVID-19 infection.
Furthermore, women have typically shouldered the rising care burdens (eg cleaning, tending to the sick) linked to lockdowns, school closures, and COVID-19’s health impacts. Although there is evidence that men are increasingly helping with childcare (eg from Nairobi and the Philippines), women and girls still provide the vast majority of care.
Women and girls often rely on unclean energy sources (for cooking, pumping water etc.), which may contribute to respiratory illness and heighten the difficulties of tending to the sick during the pandemic. Care duties are also far more challenging in the absence of adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Not only do WASH deficits result in gendered time poverty and stymie vital efforts to maintaining hygiene during the pandemic, but it is also difficult to socially distance when queuing for water (particularly in dense settlements). Women and girls may even risk gender-based violence as they walk to access water or fuels, including in refugee camps and other insecure settings.
Creating farsighted, equitable opportunities for women and girls
Amidst such overlapping challenges, it is important to recognise women’s agency and to address multiple forms of disadvantage. Women’s grassroots organisations are already helping to promote COVID-19 recovery and create new narratives for a ‘new normal.’ Gender-responsive, age-sensitive social protection can help cushion the pandemic’s impacts. Other priorities for a feminist recovery (PDF) include promoting food security, WASH, and universal healthcare; combating violence against women; and measures to tackle deep-seated social and economic inequalities.