COVID-19: How is the global pandemic threatening the safety of women and girls

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the lives of people all across the globe, particularly the vulnerable and marginalised sections of society.
With an unprecedented number of people being forced to stay indoors we need to consider lived experiences of people in vulnerable positions such as women and girls who endure disproportionate amounts of hardships due to their sex, gender, and existing social norms.(Unsplash)
With an unprecedented number of people being forced to stay indoors we need to consider lived experiences of people in vulnerable positions such as women and girls who endure disproportionate amounts of hardships due to their sex, gender, and existing social norms.(Unsplash)
Updated on Apr 14, 2020 03:46 PM IST
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ByUrvashi Gandhi

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the lives of people all across the globe, particularly the vulnerable and marginalised sections of society. With an unprecedented number of people being forced to stay indoors we need to consider lived experiences of people in vulnerable positions such as women and girls who endure disproportionate amounts of hardships due to their sex, gender, and existing social norms.Women and girls stand at a heightened risk of exposure to domestic violence.

Domestic violence/ Violence at home

Violence against women and girls is an existing global public health problem even before COVID-19 hit us. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) conducted in 2015-16, 1 in 3 women in India suffer sexual and physical violence at home. The National Crime Records Bureau also released a report in early 2020, which noted that domestic violence was the top gender-related crime that women faced.

With a lockdown and no one to turn to, the usual services not reaching them, women living in abusive relationships and their children can be forced into or exposed to uncomfortable and dangerous circumstances. Cohabitation with the abuser and his family is a very large risk for these women and their children.

Increase in unpaid care work and the double burden of work at home

In the effort for flattening the curve, the burden on women for managing and completing domestic chores increases manifold. Globally, women’s timeshare for domestic work is thrice compared to that of men. Even without the covid-19 unfolding, in India the unpaid care burden on women in 9.8 times more than that of men (NITI Aayog 2017 data). This disparity is larger in South Asian countries like India which tend to harbor a culture steeped in gender discrimination and patriarchal norms.

In India, the daily lives of middle-class families run on the services of domestic workers, drivers, dhobi, vendors who come at doorstep etc. This whole service delivery mechanism being disrupted, children being at home, elderly at risk and needing more care – the burden of domestic core and care will have increased manifold, and will invariably fall on women’s share. This has already been pointed out by the International Labor Organization, in a post about protecting women who are working from home.

Women who are managing office work from home, have accountability to their employers as well along with managing household duties. Studies have shown that the loss of educated women in the workforce is linked to the stress that results from this double-edged sword, with women feeling inadequate at work and at home, without the helping hand of other family members (OxFam India report: Mind the Gap by Diya Dutta and others, 2019). Various gender barriers and presuppositions at the workplace against women further complicate the stress women workers undergo. This causes more women to drop out of the workforce. This is reflected in the facts and figures by Action Aid from 2017. Currently Indian women’s contribution to the GDP is 17% which is below Sub Saharan Africa (39%).

At a personal level, we need to be mindful of the above situation. Families should share domestic chores along with the women. Children should be oriented towards taking small responsibilities which they can manage and likewise. The home is for everyone and so are the responsibilities related to maintaining and managing it.

Loss of income/employment both during and post-pandemic

There will be an increased and stark gender gap in livelihoods during and post the pandemic. This is true for the informal sector and (probably the formal sector) as well, where women will bear the brunt of job loss and economic downturn in various ways. The spectrum is wide here - home based workers, domestic workers, daily wagers, vendors who will lose their livelihoods. The government must ensure support for income and essential services to such women workers.

The already existing wide gender pay gap in India (33% in 2018) will further worsen post the covid crisis in India. The gap could further increase as women are likely to be disproportionately affected by home responsibilities in quarantine and that will have a direct impact on their livelihood and wage options. Additionally, with an economic slowdown, there will be more casualisation of labour, with women taking up low and irregular paid jobs.

Women also constitute a large percentage of the informal economy in informal markets and agriculture around the world - around 58%. In India, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) among women in the country, already one of the world’s lowest, was on a downward slide, according to a joint report by Bain & Company and Google as late as 2 March 2020. This will continue to slide further with the pandemic.

Health and healthcare services

A quarter of women of reproductive age in India are undernourished, with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 kg/m (Source: NFHS 4 2015-16 ). When families get hit by Covid19, with limited access to food and its economic fallouts, nutrition of women and girls are going to be at risk even more. Generally, in the Indian context women are the last ones to eat meals, in these times, the likelihood of women getting little food is higher. This might have an impact on lower immunity levels and higher chances of them getting infected.

Women are also the primary caregivers not just at home but also in the current health services. Worldwide, 67% of health care workers are women. In India, sectors like nursing and other paramedical janitorial jobs are principally populated by women, who are at the frontline of the battle against Covid-19. Studies have already shown that almost 9 lakh community women health workers are without masks or sanitizers i.e. basic minimum protection against the COVID-19. Healthcare workers from city and community hospitals have been vocal on social media platforms about shortage of PPE, and doctors and nurses have been among Covid-19 related deaths.

Public spaces and safety

Women can be one of the primary individuals to bear the responsibility of care giving at home and families and they might have to navigate public spaces and streets for various purposes. Women headed households and single women are especially facing a lot of challenges in assessing basic needs of food, water and health services during the lockdown. Due to pandemic threat they mostly access deserted and empty streets which puts a concern on their safety and security. These women have also been cut off from their extended family who are a source of support for them in the community.

There should be adequate vigilance in the streets for safety of the women, especially by female police officers and constables. There should be women PCR vans across the city to ensure the safety of women accessing the public spaces and shops.

Recommendations to create safer spaces for women and girls during COVID-19

1.There is an urgent need to increase the available resources for NGOs that provide support and assistance to domestic violence survivors for shelter, counselling, and legal aid. We would also recommend that the government considers these as part of the essential services that remain open and are available to provide support to survivors of domestic violence

2.Disseminate information about gender-based violence and publicize resources and services available

3.Allowing women who face violence to leave homes as not everyone has a safe space in their homes. Provision of women’s hostels and shelters in adequate numbers along with basic amenities. Equipping these shelters with proper staff and infrastructure required to provide women with safe spaces without compromising social distancing is an imminent necessity

4.There should be a complete ban on any form of retrenchments for the next one year and all employers must provide adequate protective gears for their workers such as masks, sanitizers, etc. Such provisions should be applicable to the ASHA, anganwadi workers, ANMs and midwives majority of whom are women.

5.The plight of the women migrant workers in terms of their health, safety and security, loss of jobs is aggravated by the current pandemic crisis. There should be shelters provided in the different cities for homeless women, single women, women with children, women with disabilities, migrant workers etc.

6.Provide for the continued provision of health care services based on medical research and tests -- unrelated to the virus -- for women and girls.

7.Ensure women’s timely access to necessary and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services during the crisis, such as maternal health services, safe abortion etc.

The Covid-19 outbreak is going to have long term consequences, economic, sociological and healthcare wise, as is already being expressed by experts worldwide. The crisis can also act as a turning point where more inclusive, gender sensitive policies can be formulated while steps are taken to redress the economy. we call on state and central governments to recall and act in accordance with human rights standards in their response to COVID-19 and uphold the principles of equality and non-discrimination, centering to the most marginalised people. It is critical that governments utilize a human rights and intersectional based approach to ensure that everyone has access to necessary information, support systems and resources during the current crisis.

Urvashi Gandhi is Director for Global Advocacy at Breakthrough India

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Sunday, November 28, 2021