COVID-19 is intensely affecting both men and women. These effects are not only limited to just mortality or physical illness but also hard-hitting economically, emotionally and physically. Women are on the frontline and bear the responsibility of their family whether in healthcare, at work or at home. The disease is attacking women’s economic, social, physical and productive lives differently and disproportionately than men. Global evidence shows that there is gender disparity in fatalities but no gender gap in contracting the virus. As compared to women, more men are losing their lives to the contagion, but women are facing more economic and social hardship due to the pandemic. UN Women report, ‘The First 100 Days of the Covid-19 Outbreak in Asia and Pacific: A Gender Lens’ demonstrates that the disease has deepened gender discrimination and gender inequality globally.
Disease, lockdowns, social distancing, loss of jobs/income has exacerbated the existing gender gap; this situation is also sharpening the exploitation, gender-based violence and abuse, and causing early marriages globally. Women are likely to take on the bulk of the uneven care load, disruption in education and income, less or no access to health and medical facilities, and are at the hazard of being evicted by tenants. It is estimated that the epidemic has a more substantial impact on women with less autonomy.
Primarily, the pandemic’s effect on girls and women can be translated into additional burdens. With or without any emergency, caring responsibility of ill and elderly always falls on women. Moreover, closed businesses have an outsized impact on millions of working women around the world. On one hand, women are losing paid jobs, and on the other, their unpaid care load has enlarged due to school closures. The economic downturn is directly and negatively affecting employment opportunities for women. This situation is causing economic stability and obstructing the purchasing ability of those women who are already living in poverty. According to the United Nations, ‘Globally around 60 percent of women work in the informal economy, earning and saving less, and are at a greater risk of falling into poverty.”
Women are more likely than men to be in the informal, online, temporary and part time employment sectors with millions of jobs eliminated globally due to COVID-19. In Pakistan, almost 20 percent of women are generating income, and most of them are part of informal, lower wage sectors. In any economic crisis, women in the informal sector have been first to lose their jobs because of inability to get wages and hence, become more dependent on others due to slow economic activity. This is also true for women who work in formal sector of the economy. A recent study confirms “Pakistan’s women-owned microenterprises, which are usually smaller than their men-owned counterparts, are 8 percent more likely to lose their entire revenue during Covid-19 pandemic.”
It is noted that the incidence of gender-based violence spikes during emergency, whether there is an economic crisis, conflict, or breakout of any disease. Irrefutable global indication shows that COVID-19 has worsened the prior multidimensional gender inequalities. The risk of violence, sexual harassment, and abuse are the other challenges women are facing during the pandemic. Data from the countries globally shows that domestic violence spiked since the epidemic intensified. Violence has tripled in China, with 30 percent increases in France, 25 percent in Argentina, and 30 and 33 percent in Cyprus and Singapore. Spain, Turkey, UK, Tunisia and India have also reported a greater number of domestic violence since the pandemic. Globally, one out of three women has faced sexual or physical violence. Pre-existing gender inequalities, social and economic anxiety triggered by the pandemic along with the lockdown restrictions have led to an exponential spike in the domestic violence. Due to this situation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for peace in homes globally and urged all governments to put, ‘‘women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.’’
Being a girl in many countries is already a hurdle to get access to learning and education. Now, the situation is further complicated by the health crisis and lockdowns, which makes education difficult for all but especially for girls. The pandemic is having a negative, and colossal, effect on girls’ learning and education in many countries where it was not a preference already. When schools are closed, the burden of household responsibilities on girls increases and it is hard for them to balance their responsibilities and schoolwork. This will result in more girls’ drop-outs.
A UNICEF report says that nearly one in three adolescent girls has never been to school in the poorest households around the world. Moreover, in low income countries, only 25 percent of girls complete their primary education. Diseases, war, and emergencies intensify the pre-existing learning inequalities in education attainment and lead to spikes in girls’ absenteeism and a lesser rate of school completion. Globally, 743 million girls are out of school and likely to experience domestic responsibilities. According to the Malala Fund, if the rate of girls’ drop-outs during corona pandemic is similar to the Ebola crisis, 10 million secondary school girls in low and lower-middle-income countries may never return to school.
Women are forefront workers in the health care sector, globally. An analysis of 104 countries depicts that women working in the health and social sector comprise about 70 percent and 50 percent unpaid carers, respectively. The healthcare sector is facing an unprecedented burden as the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing day by day. Women are at a higher risk of infection of the virus because of the higher proportion of women in the sector.
According to the Ministry of Human Rights (MOHR) Pakistan, women are less likely to receive and access medical care. About 55 percent have access to healthcare, and 34 percent of women consult a medical professional for their health problems. Countries like Pakistan with very limited health resources may shift all their resources into surviving the pandemic. That has somewhat led to women being unfavourably hurt due to decreased access to reproductive healthcare facilities. Disrupted health services and anxiety of seeking treatment during the pandemic may lead to increased maternal deaths.
In the case of an outbreak, women face the responsibilty of disease prevention and the domestic work burden even if they fall ill. In Pakistan a large number of healthcare workers are female; hence they are at a greater risk of being infected. In the case of Italy, more than 17,000 of health care workers are being infected by the disease, and two-thirds of them are females. Female healthcare workers practice and deal with infected patients round the clock, exposing them to the contagion, which may afffect them psychologically.
It is urgently required for Pakistan to adopt the gender-based economic and social policies and measures to tackle this situation as COVID-19 is already moving towards its peak and impacting day-to-day life in the country. The government is taking several measures in this regard, both with and without outside assistance.
The Government of Pakistan is already helping low-income families and women through Ehsaas program.
In this matter, the United Nations and World Bank are assisting the federal and local governments in developing and implementing policies that help to facilitate women’s employment.
The World Bank program Securing Human Investment to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) will help to recognize women’s economic contributions and support the participation of women in the labour force through appropriate working conditions. Moreover, this program ‘supports alignment efforts between Ehsaas safety net’s provincial programs to ensure that the most vulnerable and affected populations are identified and receive assistance’.
What More Could Be Done?
• Provision of safe and effective maternity facilities and access/availability of health facilities.
• Promoting health equity goals and integrate gender analysis to improve the efficiency of health interventions.
• Instant actions are required to address gender-based violence (GBV). In this regard the government can make use of initiatives of UN Women that is organizing COVID-19, GBV response services to specifically supporting national and provincial partners to improve the GBV services during the lockdown. They also assist through the helpline and shelter homes to the victims.
• Lastly, federal, provincial and local governments should formulate the pandemic response plans according to the situation for reopening the schools and ensure to implement distancing learning methods. HH
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