Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta and Sunidhi Agarwal

The gender divide isn’t new even though there have been concerted efforts to reduce it. It is often said that disasters, diseases and calamities are usually not discriminatory but when we see outcomes and consequences of these, the vulnerable – women, poor, lowest rung of the social ladder – tend to be the most badly affected.

Therefore, we need to respond to it differently through the strategies we put in place and an approach which encompasses perspectives from the society in totality. It is appealing to note that the data released by ministry and state bodies are not gender aggregated. So, most information comes from bodies such as UN Women and WHO who has been collecting data in a gender-aggregated way from various countries to offer a local and global response.

Women’s Health

The world’s extreme poor — 689.4 million, over half of whom are women and girls — living on less than USD 1.90 a day, are at an immediate high-risk in the pandemic. Women and girls, who already faced health and safety implications in managing their sexual and reproductive health and menstrual hygiene without access to clean water and private toilets before the crisis, are particularly in danger. Healthcare systems are overburdened, and resources are reallocated to respond to the pandemic, this has further disrupted health services specific to the well-being of women and girls.

In conflict zones, the pandemic has further broadened the health care sector causing an increase in maternal mortality. In refugee camps, where cramped conditions make physical distancing

challenging, women and girls are more prone to gender-based violence when practising hygiene at latrines or water distribution sites.

Violence against women

Violence against women has always existed but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation and made them more vulnerable. The lockdown has been used by the perpetrators of abuse to exert power and control over their partners, other women and girls. It has also led to increased anxiety and stress among women. The lockdown has served to isolate many women trapped with their abusers and have impacted their access to various services, psychosocial help and support from both formal and informal networks.

With more people spending time online and with movement restrictions in place, online forms of violence against women and girls in chat rooms, gaming platforms and more have increased. Women, especially essential and informal workers, such as doctors, nurses and street vendors are at heightened risk of violence as they navigate deserted urban or rural public spaces and transportation services under lockdown. The pandemic’s economic impacts are likely to increase sexual exploitation and child marriage, leaving women and girls in fragile economies and refugee contexts particularly vulnerable. First signs of ‘shadow pandemic’ became visible in the data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW) in mid-April, which suggested an almost 100% increase in domestic violence complaints during the lockdown.

Women Health Workers and Care Providers

Globally, women make up 70% of the health workforce, especially as nurses, midwives and community health workers, and account for the majority of service staff in health facilities as cleaners, launderers and caterers. In India too, they make an essential contribution at all levels of health care services.

Despite these numbers, women are often not reflected in national or global decision-making or leadership positions in the response to COVID-19. Women who are contributing more to care work as frontline workers and are exposed more to the virus are still continued to be paid much less than their male counterparts.

Economic Shock and Inequalities in terms of Social Protection

Globally, more women live in poverty than men: around 50 million women aged 25–34 compared to 40 million men of the same age. In crises, women and girls are harder hit by economic impacts. Women migrant workers hold insecure jobs in the informal economy, especially in essential but low-paid jobs as domestic workers, cleaners, laundry workers. Generally excluded from social protection and insurance schemes, this leaves them with limited or no access to health care and other social and economic safety nets.

For many of the 8.5 million women migrant domestic workers, the pandemic has led to the loss of income and jobs with their health, safety and well-being often ignored. The economic downturn has left women migrant workers sending fewer remittances, a lifeline for families and communities in their places of origin. Thus, they are less able to absorb economic shocks than men.

The world’s economies and maintenance of our daily lives are built on the invisible and unpaid labour of women and girls. Social distancing measures, school closures and overburdened health systems have put an increased demand on women and girls to cater to the basic survival needs of the family and care for the sick and the elderly. The lack of childcare support is particularly problematic for essential workers and lone mothers.

Plausible Responses

Governments and policymakers must include gender and its intersection by social identity, for collecting data, assessing the situation and preparing a response. Disaggregated data by gender and social identity is also important and useful in planning for all kinds of support towards access to resources.

The shelter homes for women need proper health and sanitary conditions, along with better provisions needed for their physical, mental and reproductory health. Proper PPE such as masks, disinfectants and gloves should be made mandatory responsibility of the government, especially in the light of the funds collected under ‘PM cares’ and the already existing PM Relief Fund.

In the wake of the ‘disease distance’, since the shelters are not able to accommodate ‘new’ entrants, therefore, more such institutions are needed. Services, such as hotlines, crisis and counselling centres, shelters, legal aid, and protection services need to be scaled up for violence survivors. Police should also continue to prioritize reports of domestic violence.

To alleviate women’s economic dependence on men, governments need to target individuals rather than households when implementing subsidies direct cash transfers. Even though food packets have been distributed, hunger still prevails. Therefore, hunger needs to be addressed keeping aside the market and profits when the food reserves are strategically sufficient. The media also has a huge role to play such as by spreading awareness about critical health issues facing the country. Hence, awareness campaigns should be organised by media agencies.

Indian women who contract COVID-19 are at a higher risk of dying than men, a recent study of cases until May 20, 2020, has found–3.3% of infected women died of the disease compared to 2.9% of men. It was done to analyse which women are getting most affected and here lies the importance of disaggregation of data, not just by gendered terms but also on basis of employment and other categories. So, officials need to share the socio-economic demographics of the confirmed cases and the COVID-19 deaths, to enable an appropriate response.

The above are the event excerpts of a talk jointly organized by Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation and Delhi Post News on “Combating COVID-19 and Gender Divide” with Prof Sanghamitra Sheel AcharyaProfessor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

Acknowledgments: Manoswini Sarkar, a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and master’s candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

YouTube Video for Combating COVID-19 and Gender Divide

Picture Courtesy: UNESCO