The social impacts of the pandemic impact women and girls the most.
COVID-19 affects us all, but not equally.
The disease significantly impacts women and girls who are typically more exposed to the virus, as they are traditionally responsible for caring for the sick. Given that women are still afforded fewer rights than men worldwide, and, although the disease itself might cause higher mortality rates amongst men, it is clear that the social impacts of the pandemic impact women and girls the most.
This scenario is even more acute when we intersect gender with other social markers such as race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age and geographical location. For example, black people in the UK are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than white people, leaving black women and girls even more exposed to its social impacts. Sadly, this comes as no surprise: we live in a world with gendered institutions and systems which constantly undermine and discriminate against individuals that are marginalised.
Reports from Christian Aid’s programmes confirm that the wider impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbating existing inequalities. For example, the social norms governing the lives of Rohingya refugees unequally affect women and girls by limiting their mobility, their ability to make decisions about their lives and access to lifesaving services, and deprioritise their needs compared to those of men. According to the COVID-19 Bangladesh Anticipatory Need Assessment by Needs Assessment Working Group (NAWG), 49% of women and children are unable to access health and nutrition services at the health facilities. The assessment revealed that 43% of healthcare workers heard of mothers dying in their area within the last week and 25% of them noted women are not coming into healthcare facilities.
To tackle the short-term gendered dimensions of the pandemic, Christian Aid partners in Bangladesh responded immediately by providing essential foods, menstrual and other hygiene necessities; the construction of handwashing points; health education and awareness through a variety of approaches; and training health teams on COVID-19 management and infection prevention and control. The response is focusing on women and girls, female-headed households and transgender communities in the districts of Gaibanda, Kurigram, Cox’s Bazar (including Rohingya refugees), Satkhira, Khulna, Jamalpur and Dhaka reaching approximately 5,000 families.
Urgent action should never be bereft of a medium/long term vision. For instance, gender-based violence, and particularly intimate partner violence has been widely reported in most contexts. The UN stated that this ‘exponential’ increase was triggered by the fact that many women and girls are in lockdown with their abusers at the same time as services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible. In El Salvador, gender-based violence cases have increased by 320% compared to the period before the national lockdown and at least 14 femicides have been reported by the authorities. This confirms that the invisible pandemic of gender-based violence must be tackled through short/medium term COVID-19 responses.
In El Salvador, Christian Aid partner ORMUSA has delivered food, hygiene and sexual health kits to more than 200 families in San Salvador and La Paz. They are also working on a campaign focused at providing appropriate information to women suffering abuse and continue to operate a legal centre through the phone and social media. These approaches are crucial in reducing the digital/information divide and mitigating the effects of gender-based violence which can be stepping stones in addressing the structural causes of violence.
Many countries like Haiti will struggle to address the gendered dimensions of COVID-19 as they are swamped with insurmountable public debt which reduces their efforts towards strengthening social protection and health systems. Women and girls will suffer the most as access to essential and lifesaving sexual and reproductive health services will be severely affected.
On the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic, Christian Aid partner Centro Montalvo works on social, economic and political empowerment of impoverished and marginalised individuals which is fundamental in crafting long-term responses that protect women’s rights and achieve gender equality. They have noticed that lacking government issued documentation and access to citizenship prohibits Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic from accessing social and economic rights. Centro Montalvo also works towards a new economic and development model which puts people and planet front and centre – key in averting another pandemic of equal gendered effects.
A Holistic Approach to COVID-19
Although, many institutions are already working to end legal discrimination, and governments acknowledge also biological differences as differentiating factors, we don’t see the acknowledgement of socio-economical inequalities (aside from by a very small minority of actors and governments). This is reflected in lockdown policies which do not consider the gendered risks of isolation.
Last month, Christian Aid launched a new report that stating that Coronavirus threatens to plunge some of the world’s poorest and most fragile contexts into catastrophe. To avert this catastrophe, we build on our past experience as a faith actor and focus on some very practical recommendations for the development sector as a whole.
We also need to build a debt, tax and a wider financial system that aims for improving human rights and gender equality rather than one that is fixated on economic growth alone – as economic growth in itself tends to benefit men more than women due to gender inequality in terms of income, asset ownership, shareholdings in big companies and overall wealth. Dealing with debt is the first priority to free up financing to meet the challenges of the crisis, followed by wider tax and financial reforms to build a feminist economy that explicitly aims for gender equality.
As the world slowly emerges from this pandemic, we cannot go back to normal. If the response to COVID-19 is to be effective and not reproduce or perpetuate gender and health inequalities, it is important that gender norms, roles, and relations that influence women’s and men’s differential vulnerability are considered and addressed. It is also crucial to ensure short-term responses are linked to medium- and long-term strategies that promote a new vision for a more just world.
Dr. Marianna Leite works on the development of holistic approaches to gender and intersecting inequalities that ensure equality of outcomes and rights for all. She is a specialist on gender and development and an international human rights lawyer.