Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 has been a setback for women. Gender-responsive policies can stem the losses

Women wearing protective face masks commute in a suburban train after authorities resumed the train services for women passengers during non-peak hours, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Mumbai, India, October 21, 2020.

Women have continued working throughout the pandemic to support their families, despite the risk to their health. Image: REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni.

Ruma Bhargawa
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
Megha Bhargava
Joint Commissioner Income Tax, Ministry of Finance, Government of India
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • COVID-19 pandemic has exposed socio-economic inequalities in health, income, education and mental wellbeing.
  • Women in countries like India, who are already socially disadvantaged, have suffered these negative impacts more than most.
  • What we need now are policies which intentionally target and support women – giving them access to financial resources to help them achieve security.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in our social, political and economic systems and amplified pre-existing gender inequalities in these spheres. We have witnessed the public health crisis turn into a fully fledged economic and social crisis.

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As mentioned in the policy brief of the Secretary General, United Nations, The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, women have borne the burden disproportionately: job losses, challenges to healthcare services and delivery, weakened social security systems, and increased gender abuse and violence.

The recent report by UN Women shows that COVID-19 will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. Four out of every 10 working women in India have lost their jobs post since lockdown.

Women are overrepresented in many of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as hospitality and entertainment. For domestic workers, 80% of whom are women, the situation has been grim; they were neither paid during the lockdown nor reemployed when things started getting back to normal. Even before the pandemic, paid domestic work, like many other informal sector jobs, lacked basic worker protections and social security safeguards. It is a genuine concern that women are likely to experience long-term setbacks in workforce participation, and income, even as we open up our economies and get back to the new normal.

Those working women who did not suffer job losses were primarily frontline warriors and essential service providers, such as healthcare workers, sanitation staff and grocery workers. These women continued working – to compensate the loss of income from other family members – often with inadequate access to appropriate personal protective equipment and overstretched work schedules, putting their health and the health of their families at risk.

As lockdown forced people to stay at home and schools closed, the burden of unpaid domestic work – taking care of children and the elderly – fell disproportionately on women. As per the report by UN Women lockdown led to increased levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. According to the report, an estimated 243 million women and girls, aged 15-49, have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last year. Cyber-violence, like sexualized trolling and online stalking and abuse, have intensified too.

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School closures and loss of livelihoods have forced many young girls to work in agriculture to support their families or they have got married early and become pregnant. Estimates show that an additional 11 million girls may leave school by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence from previous crises suggest that many will not return.

Previous health crises have shown that that resources are often diverted from routine health services to mitigate the impact of current health problems. This further reduces the already limited access of many girls and young women to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as maternal, new-born and child health services.

Every crisis comes with an opportunity; to look back, introspect and strategically plan a more nuanced response to prevent future catastrophes. This moment provides an important moment to rethink and formulate policies with a gender sensitive lens, addressing the existing inequalities and gender gaps.

The absence of gender specific data renders many gender inequalities invisible. In the context of COVID-19, accurate sex-disaggregated data on incidence, testing, hospitalization and deaths is crucial to holistically understand the impact of COVID-19 on women, including maternal and child health care. It is equally important to collect sex-disaggregated data on job losses and unemployment. These important data points can help predict the pandemic’s full impact in communities on the basis of sex, age, location, economic status, disability and migrant status.

What we need now are policies which intentionally target women, support women-led businesses, give them access to financial resources and enhance their income security. There is an urgent need to introduce women specific economic support packages, including direct cash transfers on the lines of the savings scheme Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), such as expanded unemployment benefits, grants and subsidized loans to women-owned small businesses, access to affordable and quality childcare services. Increased allocation to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) and expanding the limit of collateral-free lending to women’s self help groups are steps in the right direction. Now is the time to acknowledge this unpaid domestic care work and redistribute the burden among other family members.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021

Any response needs to reflect the fact that women have fundamental roles in both the workplace and in families, and the aim should be to support women in those roles by improving working conditions, like flexible working hours, leave options and better childcare services and school systems that suit the needs of working women.

We need to ensure that girls do not drop out of schools due to extended school closures and protect them from early marriage. Parents need to be counselled and the school teachers have a vital role in ensuring that girls get back to classes when schools reopen.

With the increased cases of violence against women made worse by extended isolation and home confinement, there is an impending need for safe access to support services and emergency measures, including legal assistance, judicial remedies, and medical and psychological support. National Commission for Women has launched an emergency WhatsApp number in addition to online complaint links and emails to provide immediate help to the victims. We need to strengthen women’s rights organizations working on the front lines and involve them in assessing and monitoring the risk and prevalence of violence in women and then develop programmes to mitigate domestic violence.

Without gender-responsive policies, the crisis risks derailing hard-won gains made over decades. We need an inclusive and transformative approach which is crucial for building a more equal and resilient society where women are at the centre of pandemic preparedness, response and recovery.

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