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COVID-19: Why Gender Matters

Headlines point out that early data shows COVID-19 could become severe more often in men than women — and while that might be true, women still bear the brunt of the impact. Here's why.

Article by Farhat Popal April 21, 2020 //   8 minute read

Global pandemics treat men and women differently. Headlines point out that early data shows COVID-19 could become severe more often in men than women — and while that might be true, women still bear the brunt of the impact. Here are eight ways women and girls are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and what factors policymakers should consider when developing short- and long-term solutions.

1. Women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce

According to a 2019 report, women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce. Less than 10 percent of all registered nurses in the United States are male. This puts women at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 in the course of carrying out their duties and reinforces the need for sufficient and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to be available to all health care workers. In addition, gender norms and discrimination impact the health sector in various ways – for example, women-dominated professions are often undervalued in society, as evidenced by the 26-29 percent unadjusted gender pay gap in the health and social sectors. This exists even in high-income professions; a survey of 65,000 physicians in the U.S. revealed that female doctors earned an average of almost 28 percent less than their male counterparts in 2017.

2. Women and girls bear disproportionate caregiving burden

Even if women are not in paid health care and caregiving roles, they are more likely to fulfill these roles at home. Women spend more time caring for elderly family members. This is on top of the average of four hours of unpaid work per day women in the U.S. perform, for example, compared to men’s two and a half hours. This caregiving burden means women face greater risk of exposure to the virus, as was seen in the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, for example.

3. Women are more likely to be in jobs with low wages and poor protections

The gender pay gap is even wider for many women who are in low-paying jobs with poor protections, such as child care workers, restaurant servers, cashiers, maids, agricultural workers, or migrant workers. These jobs often lack social protection mechanisms such as pensions, unemployment benefits or maternity protection. It’s unclear how many of the more than 22 million Americans who applied for unemployment benefits in the last month have been women. However, we do know that the percentage of single women in the low-wage workforce is almost double that of women in the overall workforce, making them more vulnerable to losing their job in the current economic environment. Globally, nearly 40 percent of women in wage employment do not have access to social protection.

4. Women are subjected to increased rates of domestic violence and children are at risk of abuse

Domestic violence is an existing public health crisis. In the current environment of sheltering-in-place, women in abusive relationships have few alternatives to being locked inside with their abusers, and may fear seeking care for their injuries at hospitals. COVID-19 has caused domestic violence to skyrocket worldwide. Moreover, in the U.S. gun and ammunition sales have increased; the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by as much as 500 percent. Several countries across the globe are requisitioning hotel rooms and setting up additional hotlines and resources, but more will continue to be needed as the multiplier effect of COVID-19 is felt on every aspect of social and economic life. Factors such as increased stress levels among parents due to financial strain and the extra burden of having their children at home also raise the risk of child abuse. For example, one hospital in Texas saw at least six cases of apparent physical abuse against children, with one case resulting in death, in the span of one week during COVID-19 compared to about eight cases per month. According to UNICEF, school closures during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.

4. Women and girls’ access to health care may be impacted

During a pandemic, vital health resources are redirected toward fighting the current crisis. The example of Ebola in Sierra Leone, for example, illustrates that this often impacts women’s access to adequate health care the most. Women were not able to readily access prenatal care, and for those that did maternal mortality and the incidence of stillbirths increased. Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care is also curtailed, which may have long-term consequences for health and wellbeing.

6. Girls are at increased risk of dropping out of school altogether following school closures

The Malala Fund estimates that approximately 10 million more secondary school-aged girls around the world could be out of school after the COVID-19 crisis has passed, if dropouts increase by the same rate as evidenced by data from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. In the long term, countries with limited resources may struggle to provide sufficient financing for education, especially to support schools, teachers, and students to fight reemergence of the virus and stay safe from indirect effects of further outbreaks.

7. Women, peace, and security issues are as important as ever

Ongoing conflict in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries around the world put already vulnerable populations at greater risk. Women often bear the brunt of conflict. The UN Secretary General has called for a global ceasefire in order to focus on the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries lack adequate health care systems and resources to manage this pandemic even in the best of times; in the context of war and violence, this is nothing short of deadly for millions of at-risk and displaced populations. Twenty years since UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the women, peace, and security agenda is even more relevant than ever.

8. Women are underrepresented in decision-making positions

Women dominate the community social work and civil society sectors and make a profound difference at the local and national level. However, they are underrepresented in decision-making positions worldwide. This has a direct impact on their lives – whether at peace negotiation tables, in board rooms, in parliaments, or any number of other arenas, policies for women are not being decided by, or in direct consultation with, women. This will be crucial, as will collection of gender-disaggregated data, in order to ensure that the rights of women and girls worldwide are upheld during this time of collective upheaval and beyond.

COVID-19 will have long-lasting effects on gender equality. It is important that policymakers bear these impacts in mind when developing solutions to the myriad of social and economic challenges the world will continue to face in the near future. As with nearly every aspect of life, the challenges and outcomes that women and girls confront in the age of COVID-19 are unique. Policy analysis and solutions that are “gender-blind” are not an option.