Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sakshi Sharda

COVID has unleashed an unprecedented crisis, it threatens the process of fully realizing the SDG and also exacerbates fragilities and inequalities within Nations. There has been a gendered impact of COVID when women and girls have paid a heavier price of the pandemic. Gender Impact Study Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute held a #WebPolicy Talk as part of the series – The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps with Mr. Mohammad Naciri on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls in Asia and the Pacific. He is the Regional Director, UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok.

Prof Govind Kelkar Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, and Chairperson, GISC, IMPRI chaired the session. She explained that in India, there had been three major impacts of the pandemic and lockdown.

  • Gender differential impact on jobs where women employees are more likely to have lost their means of livelihoods. 
  • Increased unpaid care work and,
  • The surge in domestic violence.

This is a continuing effect because no measures have been taken to address these gender concerns.

Gendered Impact of COVID-19

More women have lost their jobs and opportunities. One of the key reasons is that the industry’s most hit by the pandemic are leisure, hospitality, and education which employ females and males disproportionately. Women work as insecure labor in the informal sector, having no provision of safety nets. Working from home is also challenging, raising the concerns of broadband access, availability of home office space, child care, and homeschooling.

The digital divide has also resulted in fewer women receiving necessary information. Mr. Mohammad Naciri gave the example of Pakistan and Bangladesh, where women are less likely to receive life-saving information. Women employed in Small and Medium enterprises have borne a heavier burden of the pandemic. Ninety percent of female business owners have reported a negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which 55 percent said giving less time to their business because of a rise in their caregiving activities.

This sharp rise in unpaid care comes with no recognition- Prof M. Niaz Asadullah

Unpaid care work has also impacted the mental, emotional, and physical health of women. There has been a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the household burden. In Bangladesh, 55 percent of women reported an increase in unpaid care work compared to 44 percent. Thirty-three percent of women and 20 percent of men have at the same time wrote a rise in the intensity of unpaid domestic care work.

The pandemic had only exacerbated the issue of unpaid care work. Mr. Mohammad Naciri reported that in Aisa and the Pacific Region, women spent four times on unpaid care than the time spent by men on the same. Due to gender-assigned rules, women are more likely to be engaged in care, provide educational support, and care for the elderly.

Prof M. Niaz Asadullah, Professor, Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, while agreeing with Mr. Mohammad Naciri, pointed out that the majority of countries in Asia are poor and unable to comply with WHO guidelines for a secured home-setting. Given this situation, the responsibility has shifted to women to provide care for other household members. The state has also moved the burden of children from schools to home, increasing the burden of ‘mothers’.

He also explained that the pandemic has impacted women’s health negatively not only in terms of increased physical burden but also their reproductive and sexual health. The pandemic has resulted in disrupting the supply of contraceptives, which has increased the risk of unwanted pregnancies that violate their reproductive rights. There is no present research that would evaluate the impact of such atrocities on women.

Domestic Violence

The issue is much more complex than a mere rise in the cases of domestic violence. COVID-19 safety restrictions imply that resources are not available to victims for reporting the crime, other than helplines. There is further disruption of support services for victims due to mobility restrictions, where victims of violence are forced to stay at home with their abuser. Resources from violence support have been diverted for COVID relief.

COVID unleashed not one, but two pandemics for women as cases of domestic violence surged.- Mr. Mohammad Nacir

Violence against women has also manifested online as search queries of physical, sexual, and social violence have increased. Malaysia, the Philippines, and Nepal had a surge in search of keywords like marks of an abusive relationship, signs of a violent relationship, and cover bruises on face grew by 47 percent, 63 percent, and 55 percent, respectively.

Nandita Baruah, Country Representative-India, The Asia Foundation, New Delhi reminded us that the pandemic has hit in a patriarchal world. So, it should not be surprising that it has a gendered impact. The more the intersectionality, the greater the inequity and variant will be the impact of the pandemic—the inability to access support when one most needed it had catastrophic results. The greater isolation caused further disempowered women.

Disasters in the Asian and Pacific Region

Disasters have a gendered impact. Women’s exposure and vulnerability is exponentially increased due to gender inequality and wider lack of agency. Asia and the Pacific continue to be the region most prone to disasters, where the disaster has impacted three out of four people living in the region. In the past year, the region has reported 46000 deaths due to disasters.

Given these statistics, COVID only adds as a compounding threat to the Asia Pacific Region. 6.9 million people are displaced, of which 48 percent are women and girls. Climate disasters are further increasing the vulnerability of the region. Countries with low coping capacities such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Papua New Guinea are disproportionately impacted in times of catastrophe.

The population is left prone to poverty, marginalization, and disempowerment across generations. Against this backdrop gender inequality heightened exposure to risks, increased vulnerability and restrains capacity. It renders girls with an uneven ability to anticipate and recover from disasters.

The intersection of COVID-19 with climate disasters is increasing the risk in the region -Mr. Mohammad Naciri

Prof M. Niaz Asadullah poignantly recognized that the impact of a pandemic on women had not been homogenized throughout Asia and the Pacific. One simple reason is that different countries were at various stages of resolving systemic gender issues. While in India, girls form the majority of pandemic-induced dropouts from school, Malaysia’s experience is starkly different. In Malaysia, boys are studying less at study at home.

The difference between baseline empowerment and distribution of capabilities by gender has resulted in lopsided response to gender disparity. In southeast Asia, there is a strong state which has been able to sustain social security policies, but this has not been the case in South Asia because of the state capacity deficit.

Female Migrants

It is a mistake to look at women as a homogenized group. There are differentiated impacts on different target groups like women migrant workers. These workers are working in more significant economic and livelihood insecurity. Women in South Asia are less likely than men to be covered by health insurance. Myanmar had the highest share, 33 percent of intra Asian migrants, where only four percent have legal status to give them decent working conditions.

Women are more likely to be undocumented, making women workers more susceptible to physical and sexual violence at each stage of migration. There are 34 million female migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific Region. They engage in economic activities which are now under threat due to lockdown, halting of global supply chains, and discontinued production.

Women constitute 70 percent of workers in the health and social security sector globally. Women include the majority of the helpline workers and are hence also indirectly impacted negatively by the COVID-19 pandemic putting them at greater risk. Even within this sector, the gender pay gap is 28 percent.

Women healthcare workers have called attention to their specific needs beyond protective gear, these included menstrual hygiene needs, and psychological support. This needs to be prioritized with vaccine distribution which is not being done presently. Nandita Baruah at the same time, has warned about protectionism when it comes to hampering the recovery. Like in Nepal, where women below the age of 40 needed permission from the ward to travel from Nepal, this happens to be recovery.

Way Forward

In the short term, the focus has to be on saving the lives of all, including care workers by ensuring training, safety equipment, fair wages, and just conditions of work. Information is empowerment, and women should have access to life-saving and sustaining information. There needs to be a community and outreach for all. We need to prioritize girls’ education by ensuring that school closures do not translate into more significant dropouts.

Prioritize protections for sex workers, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people. We must continue all measures against human trafficking. The private sector is also a partner in the solution; they should have work from home facilities, paid leave, and provide flexible hours. Workers are offered adequate equipment for protection.

In the long term, the focus must be on higher female participation in the labor force. There should be steps to correct unpaid care work and redistribute, recognize and monetize unpaid and underpaid workers. The care economy can be regularised and provide for certain occupations for women. There can be a transition from the informal to the formal economy through training and certification. To free women to participate as a labor force, we need to expand affordable childcare, improving household and travel infrastructure.

YouTube Video for Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls in Asia and the Pacific

Picture Courtesy: BBC