During the initial months of the Covid-19 crisis, experts expressed their concern that this pandemic could set women back decades and rollover 50 years of progress in gender equality. As time passes, data from across the world are proving that the threat is real.
With extra burden of childcare and household chores, unsecured jobs, job loss, risk-prone working conditions, hard to access reproductive and sexual rights, and rising cases of domestic violence— women are being pushed over the edge.
Job loss, burden of extra unpaid care, working in front line – women are impacted disproportionately worldwide
Women constitute 39 percent of global employment, but they make up for 54 percent of the job losses caused by this recent recession. Reports estimate, women are 1.8 times more likely to lose their jobs during this crisis than men. According to the estimate by the Pew Research Center, between February and May, 11.5 million women in the US lost their jobs compared to 9 million men.
During this latest recession, job losses are concentrated in the sectors like leisure and hospitality, retail trade, and education— the sectors with an overwhelming majority of women workers. Besides, jobs in the informal sectors are quickly disappeared following the pandemic and consequent lockdown. In the developing nations, t wo-third of employed women work in the informal economy, and they lost their jobs overnight.
Another factor that is contributing towards this reducing women workforce is the extra burden of unpaid caregiving. Even in normal times, women are heavily burdened with the responsibility of childcare and household chores. There is no country in the world where domestic works are evenly distributed among the men and women.
A UN report suggests, globally on average, women spend 3.2 times more hours in unpaid household works than men. The International Labor Organization estimates, in Asia and the Pacific, women spend 4.12 times more hours in household chores, as compared to men.
Surveys show all over the world, COVID-19 is intensifying women’s workload at home. A study conducted in the US suggests, from February to April in heterosexual married households with children, the mother’s professional work hours dropped four to five times more than father’s hours did. When both parents worked from home, fathers continued to work for 40 hours a week while mothers had to reduce their work hours to spend time in childcare.
According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, in the EU, where both parents were employed before the lockdown, mothers are 1.5 times more likely to have either lost their job or quit it. Women are also more likely to have taken an unpaid leave of absence.
A recent study found that the papers related to Covid-19 published in the medical journals during the first half of the year had fewer women authors in the US. The study compared the gender distribution of the authors who wrote medical papers on Covid-19 with that of the papers published in the same journals in 2019 and found the participation of women researchers as a first author has dropped and this is particularly significant in the initial months of the pandemic when the lockdown was in effect.
This shows, women across their class and social position are having to take up the extra burden of childcare and household works and are having to juggle between office-work and household chores. The situation is even more difficult for single parents who are mostly women.
Besides bearing the brunt of the extra unpaid care works, women are also largely overrepresented in caregiving jobs. Globally, women account for 70.6% of the workers employed in the health and social sector.
In the health sector, while men are overrepresented among the physicians, women are concentrated in low-ranked jobs which makes them even more vulnerable to the virus. In the US, 90% of the nurses and nursing assistants are women. In India, 83% of nurses and midwives are women, whereas 84% of doctors are men.
This medical hierarchy explains why female health workers are getting infected by the virus at a higher rate than male workers.
Surge of gender violence, denied access to reproductive health rights- lives of women are under threat
Just after the lockdown was imposed, mounting reports of domestic abuse started pouring in from all over the world. The lockdown and other social isolation measures trapped women with their abusers in domestic spaces and restricted their access to friends and support network. Access to legal and medical support for the survivors has also become extremely limited in most parts of the world. Women who used to find respite from the violence while staying outside for their job are now being forced to stay with their abusers throughout the day enduring trauma and violence. Furthermore, job losses and pay cuts have made it more difficult for them to escape abusive partners.
From China to Spain, from the US to India, from Germany to Singapore— irreparable losses are done across the world with very little measures taken by the respective governments. The support networks and activist groups are crippled with the movement restriction and survivors are left behind, scrambling for support.
Women’s access to the right to reproductive and sexual rights are also being highly jeopardized by the pandemic situation in various countries. UNFPA predicts, due to this crisis there could be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide. It can also lead to thousands of deaths from unsafe abortion and complicated births.
During the lockdown, many countries including some of the states in the US forced sexual and reproductive health services to close down because these services were not classified as essential. Also, with the overwhelmed health care system, restricted mobility, and faulty government policies, it has become extremely difficult for many of the women to access safe sexual and reproductive health care.
Availing maternal healthcare services has also become a challenge for many. Especially in the countries with strained and underfunded health care system the pregnant women are routinely being denied admission to the hospitals for institutional delivery. In many less developed areas where women already had limited access to maternity healthcare are now being forced to deliver their babies at home with the help of quack doctors.
In 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap and the pandemic has pushed us backward. The policy interventions need to take this into account while drawing the roadmap to recovery.
A policy brief published by the UN in April states, “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protection and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is, therefore, less than that of men.”
Besides fighting the virus, measures targeted at closing this gender gap with a particular focus on the women living in the lower strata of the society, women from the marginalized comminutes, women from economically disadvantaged class, women of color, and women with a disability needs to be taken immediately. Because the fight against pandemic cannot be successful if half of the population is left behind.
Sananda Dasgupta is a political commentator