The gendered impact of COVID-19

[Brussels, 21 April 2020] This piece was originally published on Apolitical by Nuray Özbay, Turkish National Expert on VAW at European Women’s Lobby.
Why the pandemic hits women harder — and what governments can do about it

The COVID-19 crisis disproportionately affects women. We need to implement urgent gender-sensitive public policy responses to mitigate the pressing health and safety risks for women.

The world is tragically suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Caught unprepared, more than 200 countries are impacted, confirmed cases almost reaching a million at the time of writing. Mandatory quarantines, country lockdowns, and mobility restrictions have all become part of our lives as we try to "stay-in" and "stay-alive."

While we are obliged to shelter in place, home is not a safe place for everybody. This is especially true for women and girls who are under higher risk of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household. Moreover, school closures translate into a heightened burden of informal care within families, affecting women more adversely who globally carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men.

Women are quite literally on the frontline as they represent 70% of the health and social sector workforce globally, putting them at greater risk and requiring special attention to their health and psychosocial needs. Last but not least, sexual and reproductive health services and resources for women demand more attention during pandemics as the emergency response to COVID-19 might result in restrictions in facilities, services, and personnel.

What governments can do right now

While the crisis responses and public policy measures globally are focused on curbing the spread of COVID-19, we need an urgent consideration of the gendered implications of this crisis. We need to adopt a gender equity lens in our public policy responses to mitigate the pressing health and safety risks for half of our population.

What are the significant public policy actions we can take to reduce the adverse impact of the pandemic on putting women and girls in more vulnerable positions? Here are some strategic areas to focus on;

  • Collect gender-segregated data on the impact of COVID-19. Data-informed decisions are the key to impactful public policy solutions. To successfully address the specific needs of certain groups, we need a clear understanding of the primary and secondary impacts of this pandemic on diverse genders with intersecting demographic, racial, socio-economic, and medical backgrounds. Working with international organisations like WHO, UN Agencies, and related Ministries in standardisation and collection of this data is a vital first step for creating impactful and inclusive policies and interventions.
  • Revisit the legal frameworks and international/national laws preventing violence and discrimination and communicate the validity and applicability of these laws during the pandemic. The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, also known as theIstanbul Convention, is the most comprehensive international convention on combatting violence against women. Signed by 46 states and the European Union, ratified by 34, continues to apply to all parties at all times, including pandemic. It is essential to communicate the relevance and applicability of this convention and the related national laws and sustain the service provision by all law enforcement agencies, social services, relevant ministries, and the justice sector. Organising public communication campaigns about the national crisis hotlines and improving their online / phone service structures to sustain timely and adequate guidance to survivors are vital steps to take. Furthermore, strengthening the IT infrastructure of national justice systems and introducing new digital technologies that enable online legal services such as guidance, complaint submission and case follow up could also significantly increase the volume and quality of support provided to survivors.
  • Strengthen the dialogue and cooperation with independent women’s organisations who have expertise on violence against women (VAW). Set an immediate urgent communication platform with the women’s organisations working on VAW — if you have not done so already — and collect necessary data on cases they receive, their pressing needs, and required resources to continue their services during this period. Not only learning from their experience and strategising on this knowledge but also allocating a budget in support of these organisations is vital to sustaining the service provision in combatting VAW.
  • Make sure that healthcare and protection services to women under risk are available, well communicated, and adequately resourced. Make sure that accurate information about the available services and locations are provided to women at reproductive age, pregnant women, as well as women under risk. Working with WHO and other UN Agencies in supporting national Ministries of Health in this process could be helpful. To improve service provision, allocating individual hospitals or clinics in each city/region to VAW cases could be a great response. Moreover, expanding shelters and temporary housing services for survivors, as well as improving the resources and healthcare provision to these facilities are equally essential. Regulating the health and hygiene conditions at shelters, and providing secured areas for women diagnosed with COVID-19 are other immediate actions to be taken.
  • Make the increased care burden visible, introduce programs to alleviate the load, and organise campaigns to call household members in sharing care duties at home. Improving the home-schooling programs to require minimum parental guidance, introducing new distance learning tools to complement the formal curriculum, and designing alternative online pedagogical activities and programs could help to balance the extra care burden on parents. Furthermore, organising national or international campaigns with social media arms aiming to make the care burden visible and calling all household members to participate in household chores could be an effective way to pave widened gender gaps.

Pandemics add an extra layer to existing inequalities in society, making the lives of women and girls harder. Now it is time to revisit the famous feminist slogan of the ’60s and "politicise the personal."

Let’s take a closer look at homes that are not safe for many, listen to the personal stories of women survivors, redistribute the care labor, and design safe and sound public policies for all.

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EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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