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Covid-19 – why gender matters

Written by Caroline Harper, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine, Rachel George, Rachel Marcus, Fiona Samuels, Francesca Bastagli, Nicola Jones, Megan Daigle

Public headlines on the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted common imperatives: immediately, the capacity of health provision and addressing economic impacts. Secondly, concerns about political leadership, education, food security and the practicalities of social distancing, to name just a few.  

For those of us working on gender, however, the gendered issues surface only briefly. The inevitable rise of domestic violence (PDF) under lockdown and the need for governments to provide safe shelter for women and children is a priority.  

But there are gender dimensions to every aspect of this pandemic, and gender justice and equality should be a more prominent part of the mainstream pandemic story.  Recent commentary suggests country responses can currently be characterised by actions which are ignoring, reinforcing or challenging gender norms.   

In all these cases, the pathways followed, and the challenges made, will determine whether, coming out of this pandemic, we create more or less gender equitable societies.    

We already have good evidence of how a financial crisis impacts disproportionately on women and children, and whilst we know about some health crises, such as Ebola, there is much we do not know about global pandemics such as Covid-19.    

To improve gender justice, we explore multiple dimensions of gender and Covid-19 concerns to better understand the gendered impacts of the threat and embed gender concerns into every aspect of the response.   

Our experts discuss gender, Covid-19, and issues of leadership and intimate partner violence. They also cover women’s economic empowerment and security, education, health and social protection. Finally, they share ODI’s latest thinking on issues around youth and data, conflict and humanitarian contexts and learning from history.

Caroline Harper

Carmen Leon-Himmelstine: tackling a double pandemic – how Covid-19 influences gender-based violence, and what can be done

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global pandemic that already affects 35% of women at some point in their lifetime. Evidence shows that women, girls and other vulnerable groups are at increased risk of GBV during public health crises, including sexual violence, abuse and exploitation.  

Reports already suggest three-fold increases in GBV in the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, which may have different causes, such as increased household economic stress, or lack of access to support during social distancing and lockdowns.  

Experts say that it would be useful to draw on the lessons from other crises, like Ebola. They also note, however, that the unique nature of Covid-19 and the unprecedented physical distancing it requires raises concerns about GBV that we have not seen in any previous crisis. As a result, we know little about the best ways to tackle it during this pandemic. 

Experience suggests that integrating violence protection services into the responses from other sectors (such as health, education and justice) is critical, alongside the provision of targeted services such as shelters.

But we are also seeing promising innovations taking place as women struggle to get help as a result of social distancing instructions. Some of these measures are: 

Although all these measures are important, the need to re-shape gender norms is more urgent than ever. While every country is likely to see a surge in domestic violence, those societies with more equitable gender norms may fare better.

We need far greater investment in work to change norms to address violence, including in low-resource and humanitarian settings. This work also needs to be scaled up to support more resilient societies during times of crisis and efforts to address the roots of violence, rather than just the symptoms.  

Rachel George: why women’s representation matters for the pandemic response

An effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic demands diversity and representation at the table where decisions are made about policy.

Women’s voices should be at the heart of the debates on policies to respond to the crisis, given that they account for more than 70% of the global health workforce that is now on the frontline in the fight against the pandemic. However, they make up less than 25% of leaders in the health sector.  

This problem is linked to a critical gap in women fulfilling policy-making roles. Globally, women still make up less than 25% of parliamentarians and less than 10% of heads of state. Similarly, most health ministers are male. For example, in Europe, just 30% are women, falling to just 18% in South East Asia.  

The new US and UK coronavirus task forces are comprised almost entirely of men. Women were also noticeable for their absence in the early public debate. For every three men quoted in media coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak, only one woman was asked for her views, suggesting that women’s perspectives are not being included in the conversation. 

While they are under-represented in the sciences overall, biomedical science is one area in which women are more represented. However – yet again – they remain under-represented in the most senior positions. What’s more, women are largely under-represented in the data and essential clinical trials that inform medical response and public health in general.  

Including women in the crisis response is urgent, for both moral and instrumental reasons and experience from other sectors is clear.

Women’s involvement in peace negotiations, for example, has been found to make peace settlements 35% more likely to last. Also, women’s leadership has been found to significantly enhance business performance, sustainability and corporate social  responsibility as women bring new ideas to problem-solving and agenda-setting.  

Women’s leadership in public health decision-making is equally seen as critical to a more inclusive, successful health system.

As the World Health Organisation has found, ‘women leaders often expand health agenda, strengthening health for all’, identifying ‘gendered leadership gaps’ as a key barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and universal health coverage.  

If more women are at the table responding to Covid-19, matched by greater representation of other groups, policy-makers and health leaders can be better equipped for a more well-rounded and impactful response.  

Rachel Marcus: an intersectional lens on Covid-19, work and livelihoods

It is often observed that women are likely to ‘bear the brunt’ of Covid-19, but statements like this skate over two critical and related points. Its economic impacts vary hugely by sector and type of work, and people’s experiences of the crisis are profoundly intersectional – meaning they are affected by overlapping inequalities and forms of discrimination.

It is increasingly clear that the entire healthcare chain, public transport, agriculture and food processing, and logistics/delivery services are among the most exposed sectors, with workers often under-protected by their employers. Where patterns of work in these sectors are gendered, or reflect racial disparities, so do the health risks.

While healthcare workers, from the most senior doctors to hospital porters, face unique risks, overall it is low-income workers, from the mostly female poultry processors in the US to male construction workers in the Gulf, whose lives and livelihoods are most seriously affected.

These workers – among whom women, young people, racially discriminated groups and migrant workers are overrepresented &ndash are much more likely to be in the informal sector,  the gig economy, or in non-unionised formal sector jobs, with limited or no rights and protection against both health risks and lay-offs.

In previous crises, retrenchment patterns have often been gendered (subscription required), with preference given to men who are assumed to be family breadwinners. This assumption puts female-headed households and others outside the heteronormative household model at increased risk.

To reduce the negative economic impacts of Covid-19 on marginalised groups, policies must be based on sound sector-specific analysis of intersecting gender, class, racial and other inequalities and a vigorous commitment to implementing anti-discrimination laws. Where the design of social protection and economic rescue packages means that certain groups are unable to access them, additional targeted support is essential to prevent catastrophic increases in poverty.

Rachel Marcus: the impact of Covid-19 on education

The protracted Covid-19 lockdown risks undermining real progress worldwide on school enrolment and gender parity in education over the past decade.

Evidence from previous economic crises shows that girls are more likely to take on care responsibilities and drop out of school while families prioritise boys’ education. Where adolescent pregnancy and marriage are common, temporary school drop-outs often become permanent for girls as they adopt new roles and ‘move on’ to a life stage seen as incompatible with education. At the same time, adolescent boys may be under greater pressure to contribute to household incomes, reducing their educational participation.

It is therefore vital to scale-up social protection to prevent vast numbers of children from poorer groups dropping out of school. Flexible and second-chance education are also crucial to stop disrupted education having lifelong effects. Scale up should aim to reach children and young people already deprived of education, as well as those whose education has been halted as a result of the pandemic.

The crisis has shifted much education online and on to other distance education channels. While this increases flexibility, we need to pay attention to socioeconomic and gendered digital divides, with tailored provision to enable different groups to catch up on missed learning and develop critical skills.

In addition to the risk of lost learning, school closures also risk limiting the potential of education to drive gender equality – through exposing young people to new knowledge and ideas, building aspirations, enabling young people to mix with a variety of peers and challenging established gender norms.

During closures, distance approaches should continue to harness education as an engine of gender equality through ensuring that learning materials are free from gender stereotypes and that social studies, citizenship and related subjects continue alongside ‘core’ subjects such as maths, language and science.

Fiona Samuels: the gendered impacts on health – building on what we know

We are overloaded with information, blogs and articles that explore the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic for the health sector. Although we cannot cover all aspects, I want to focus on what Covid-19 means for women’s access to health in low-income countries.

While Covid-19 presents new and global challenges, it is also critical we build on lessons from other pandemics, such as HIV and Ebola. From HIV we know that women, especially young women, are disproportionately affected. We also know that testing and community engagement, the latter also a learning from Ebola, with women and girls at the centre is critical. These insights need to be applied to the Covid-19 response.

Although men appear more susceptible to Covid-19, we still need to see how this plays out in low-income countries. We know that during health emergencies women are more susceptible to infection as main carers within households and health settings.

Women also engage with health services, especially sexual and reproductive services, far more than men. If these services are compromised by Covid-19, women will be the first to feel the effects. Again, responses need to target women using innovative awareness-raising activities (including through digital technologies) to protect themselves and their families.

Women’s access to health services is also often controlled by men. Gender norms therefore often limit women’s mobility and interactions with male health providers. A Covid-19 response must take these restrictions on board and utilise options like peer networks, women’s health groups and community health workers to reach women and girls.

To cut through the ‘noise’ it’s important to continue building on learning around how to systematically strengthen health systems. Given what we know about the disproportionate effect Covid-19 is likely to have on women, such a response needs to ensure that gendered dynamics, including around access to health services, are considered upfront rather than as an afterthought.

Francesca Bastagli: Covid-19, social protection and gender inequality in the world of work

The Covid-19 crisis has brought social protection to the forefront as a crisis response tool. Across the world, headline-grabbing increases in demand for social protection reflect just how effective it can be in the context of a shock.

It has also exposed some of the gaps and contradictions in existing social protection systems. Among these are concerns about how gender inequalities in the world of work interact with policy and risk reinforcing gender stereotypes and disparities. While these issues aren’t new, the current crisis has brought them back into sharp focus. It presents an opportunity to address them head on.

Building on lessons from past crises and ongoing work on social protection and women’s empowerment, three key points stand out for both the immediate crisis response and the recovery phase:

1. The valuation of care and “low-skilled” work and social protection framing

The predominant conceptualisation of work in terms of paid work and market wages is at the heart of social protection policy gaps. The crisis highlights the gendered implications of this approach. School and day-care centre closures are expected to disproportionately impact women given the existing distribution of care responsibilities.

Women are also overrepresented in low-paid and precarious work to fight the pandemic. Adequate social protection response will have to reconsider how we conceptualise work and value care and other essential services which currently have limited or no social protection.

2. Addressing social protection gaps for affected workers

The crisis has significantly impacted job and income security in sectors with high female labour participation and low protections, such as the service sector (e.g. in the US and UK) and among the self-employed and workers in the informal economy. Policy response requires both direct income support and adjustments to employment-related social protection, to step up provision in the short-term while planning around sustainability and gender equity over time.

3. Provision for risks that women and girls specifically face

Women’s exposure to health-related and other risks as a result of being on the frontline of the Covid-19 response and of physical distancing highlights the urgency of strengthening social protection policy links to services and infrastructure. These include sexual and reproductive health, water and sanitation and violence and abuse support services.

Nicola Jones: listening in real-time – adolescent girls’ and boys’ experiences of life under Covid-19

Existing – albeit limited – statistics suggest that adolescents are least likely to be hospitalised or to die in this pandemic, but we also know from the 2007/8 global financial crisis (subscription required) that children and adolescents are likely to face multiple, interconnected and gender-specific risks at a time in their lives that is pivotal for their physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development.

Potential risks include:

Yet these challenges are likely to be very different in the life of an adolescent Syrian refugee girl living in an urban host community in Jordan, a married girl in a remote rural lowland village in Ethiopia with no internet access and water points several hours from her home, and a physically disabled boy who works with his father in a small business in Bangladesh.

To support timely, relevant, gender- and age-responsive policy and interventions, the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research programme is engaging with adolescent girls and boys through virtual interviews and surveys in five low- and middle-income countries to explore how their lives are changing under Covid-19.

These real-time interviews are highlighting the urgent need for context-relevant information around prevention measures, especially in rural areas. Young people are also calling for:

  • support to navigate online education, for example through local organisations or mentors
  • urgent access to safety nets, especially for working adolescents and young migrants
  • opportunities to connect with peers virtually, in particular for married girls under elevated household stress due to the lockdown.

Policy and interventions should address these needs to ensure young people emerge resilient from this crisis.

Caroline Harper: lessons from history – preventing backsliding through a holistic and informed response

Too often we have seen women come to the fore in moments of crisis, only to see the progress they have made whittled away again in a pattern of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. The Covid-19 recovery phase will need to look out for any signs of regression in women’s rights and ensure that hard-won gains are not lost.

This requires us to better understand experiences that have driven change in history, often through great efforts over time, and the impacts of crises on these change processes.

History shows us that countries that invest heavily in social policy during and after financial crises have reaped the biggest economic and social rewards. Investing in education that provides new opportunities and ensuring robust human rights through legal systems to hold governments and citizens to account are essential.

We also need gender impact and budgeting analysis, for which we have well tried tools, to be integrated into recovery policies and plans. This could set the example for a more holistic and informed response and recovery effort. Social movements, women’s voices and gender-sensitive political, economic and scientific leadership are all vital to push for accountability and socially progressive action within every country.

There is early evidence that social movements are under strain as economies are rocked, funding dries up and members are diverted to other priorities. We will be reaching out to them through our ALIGN platform on gender norms to gain a stronger understanding of how we can cope with Covid-19 and a financial crisis, and create a new normal that is better for women and girls, and for men and boys.

In crises, women’s and human rights are sometimes treated as simply ‘nice to have’ rather than essential bedrocks for wellbeing. History shows us that women’s courage in speaking out and claiming their rights is almost always necessary. If we can push gender equality concerns into the foreground earlier on in this crisis and recovery, there is a chance that the Covid-19 response can learn from history and begin to acknowledge and address the gender impacts we are already seeing.

Megan Daigle: gender and humanitarian action in the time in Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a looming catastrophe in humanitarian settings. In acute and high-risk places like refugee camps, people live in cramped quarters without the privacy to self-isolate, facilities for good hygiene or adequate healthcare.

These are also places where our knowledge of how gendered norms influence experience of humanitarian crises is already thin. What we do know, however, is that pre-existing inequalities shape how people of all genders experience crises, including disease outbreaks – and this depends not just on gender but racialisation, sexuality, disability, age and socio-economic capital.

As responses are designed and rolled out, Covid-19 also incites humanitarians to think differently about vulnerability and the criteria that defines it. The immediate impacts of Covid-19 are already challenging preconceptions: men and seniors, not women and children, are proving more at risk of severe outcomes. Dig deeper, however, and more familiar inequalities become apparent.

In West Africa’s 2014–16 Ebola crisis, women’s roles as carers at home and frontline health workers made them more prone to infection. Ebola also shows us how medical resources can be diverted from sexual and reproductive care, leaving women to suffer consequences like higher maternal mortality, pregnancy complications and unsafe abortions. Covid-19 reveals the limitations of vulnerability as a concept; clearly, humanitarians need a more nuanced, less categorical way of assessing modes and dimensions of risk.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have now drastically reduced humanitarian work. Amid growing concerns about access and capacity, competing priorities – not least Covid-19 itself – threaten to push gender off the agenda once again. In crisis settings, women and gender minorities already face considerable barriers to healthcare, amongst other risks, all further exacerbated by the pandemic.

As the fallout mounts, humanitarians’ focus must extend beyond the crisis we see, to the ones we don’t – not just the virus itself but its shadow effects on women and gender minorities.