The sudden transformation of life that accompanied the unprecedented pandemic situation has had some detrimental impact on perhaps every individual across the globe. The world itself has transformed – in more ways than one, and it shall perhaps continue to transform after this – making the post-pandemic world a very different one than the one we have previously known. What is significant to address, however, is what the oft-ignored gender lens has tried to convey time and again. Situations like the current one tend to have very specific effects upon women, owing to the societal expectations and norms they are subject to. Particular rules and roles, already responsible for the existing gender inequalities, when placed in the COVID-19 context and its various consequences, have shown short and potentially long-term effects on the lives of women – playing out in many different dimensions and ways.
Given that women play a significant role in the healthcare sector, the direct impact of COVID-19 upon them is obvious; women represent a majority (70%) of the health and social services workforce worldwide and, as a result, have been at the very centre of the crisis, fighting the virus at its battlefront. At the same time, women have also faced the brunt of the indirect impacts of the pandemic and the following lockdown. They have had to face restrictions on their autonomy, a further impact on their reproductive rights, as well as an increase in unpaid care-work. On top of this, the situation has also made them more vulnerable to losing their jobs and to domestic violence. These particular effects are often neglected but remain significant to highlight and address.
Gender inequalities have become even more blaring in these times. The consequences of biases and attitudes towards women, leading to restrictions on their independence, become much worse in a situation where most of the world is forced to give up some amount of its freedom. Stigmas and myths around womanhood, the lack of reproductive autonomy, traditions and practices all contribute to a situation where women face a loss of any personal and/or social autonomy. This is exacerbated by the current lack of accessibility to reproductive and sexual health, arising from both the lockdown and the diversion of most resources towards responding to the pandemic. This leaves open the risk for a further reduction of the reproductive autonomy of women, exemplified by the current halt of abortion services in some countries, which could potentially be exploited to permanently shut down abortion clinics. It may be pertinent, however, to add here that on the bright side, some countries have taken steps to ensure access to them and other reproductive health services for women. Despite this, the fight against the stigmas and stereotypes around these issues remains at the risk of circling back and undoing what has so far been achieved.
Gender inequality also manifests itself in the societal roles, expectations and narratives that have always considered women as primary caregivers, a job that becomes considerably more significant and demanding in a pandemic situation. The unpaid care economy, which has long been dependent upon women, has taken centre-stage in response to COVID-19, thus adding to their workload. For example, as most schools and offices shut or shifted to virtual platforms, more members of the family were forced to stay at home for months on end, increasing the share of women’s work accordingly. This is reflected, perhaps, in the increased cleaning and cooking tasks falling in their laps. For families having to attend to either the elderly or the sick, the care aspect became ever more crucial and challenging. COVID-19 thus, once again, puts unpaid care-work and the household sphere as the topmost priority for women.
The loss of jobs, an already distressing state of affairs, has also shown gendered effects – as the industries that have been the hardest-hit are those where women are more highly represented than men. These include the hospitality, retail, and tourism industries, which might, in fact, continue to face challenges for a long time. So, while that puts women out of work currently, the pandemic also creates situations that may keep them unemployed for a longer period of time. As Toni Van Pelt, President of the National Organization for Women (United States) told The Guardian, “With a depleted job market, men who were in other, more lucrative industries may compete for roles traditionally filled by women.” The fears of an increasing gender wage gap thus become much more prominent now. At the same time, the economic situation of women during the pandemic also proves to be more difficult due to the fact that women are largely employed in the informal sector, and therefore lack access to basic protections, for example, those against dismissal. All of this, when combined with the fact that the pandemic situation transfers care-work from the paid care economy back to the unpaid one, might contribute to the long-term effects on the gendered distribution of work. This would mean that women would have to ensure the smooth transition and wellbeing of everyone else in the household in a post-COVID world before they could look for jobs again.
Some of the most horrific reports during the pandemic and confinement, however, have been of incidents of gender-based violence coming from several countries such as China, the UK, and France amongst others. The state of confinement and isolation contributes to an increased risk of violence against women, as many connections with the outside world and access to protection services get reduced. With the victims caught in a state of confinement with their abusers, reports of domestic violence have been on the rise. Other COVID-19 related factors, such as the loss of jobs, stress, and similar issues, add to this terrifying situation, making it much more complicated and fragile than it already is.
All of this should not, however, have come as a complete surprise. Evidence from past epidemic situations reflects similar effects on the lives of women and girls, which they continue to endure to this day. Most responses and policies fail to consider the gender lens and the particular impacts of crisis situations like this one on women.
The current pandemic has brought with it several lessons waiting to be learned. It is time to understand the intersectionality of struggles and the specific responses necessitated by it. This unprecedented situation allows the world to observe, take notes, and ensure future crisis management anticipates the need for tailoring the response according to the needs of different sections of the society. If the post-pandemic world is bound to be a new one – perhaps it could give us the opportunity to make it a better one for all of us who inhabit it.