Exploring the Intersection of Gender Equity and Healthcare

Session Report
Reet Lath

A Four-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on ‘Healthcare & Gender Equity: Emerging Dimensions, Policies, Impact & Way Forward’ was organized by the Gender Impact Studies Centre, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi from August 28th, 2023 to August 31st, 2023. 

The discussions, which took place on day two, were marked by a growing awareness of the significant impact of pandemics on women and the dire need for gender-sensitive policies and interventions. 

Professor  Sanghamitra Sheel Acharya, Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, began the discussion by acknowledging the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the remarkable century-long gap since the Spanish flu. She emphasized the critical importance of scrutinizing its repercussions on society, with a particular focus on women’s experiences. Her insights highlighted the urgent need for a holistic understanding of the multifaceted challenges faced by women during this crisis.

Women’s Economic Realities

As the pandemic raged on, the significant role of mobility restrictions in combating its spread became evident. While effective, these measures posed significant challenges, particularly for women residing in densely populated households, where maintaining social distance was difficult. This situation disproportionately burdened women, especially those employed in the informal sector, who not only lost their jobs but also took on the responsibility of managing the disease’s spread.

In order to support this claim, Professor Acharya cited data from the United Nations documents, which revealed that roughly 2 million women, particularly mothers with young children, were forced to reconsider their employment situations during the pandemic, often leading to them leaving their jobs. She emphasized that,  in most cases, they have no choice but to shoulder the responsibility of providing care to those affected by the pandemic, as well as their families.

She also highlights the pandemic’s effect on women’s livelihoods, especially those who had migrated from rural to urban areas in search of better opportunities. The pandemic disrupted these already precarious livelihoods, pushing women into the depths of extreme poverty. Additionally, she points to the findings of an Oxfam report, which reveal the staggering extent of this crisis—approximately 47 million women and girls were plunged into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, with about 740 million women working in the informal sector experiencing a drastic income reduction of nearly 60% during the pandemic’s initial three months.

Impact on Women’s Healthcare and Essential Roles During the Pandemic

She underscores that women were systematically excluded from quality healthcare services during the pandemic. This exclusion adversely impacted their healthcare needs, spanning antenatal, birthing, and postnatal care. The resulting disruption of healthcare systems due to COVID-19 exerted a profound impact on women’s sexual and reproductive health, with access to care services reduced globally. This heightened the risk of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, while complications during pregnancy, delivery, and pregnancy terminations surged. Unintended pregnancies soared worldwide due to the diversion of healthcare services, and maternal deaths escalated by 8% to nearly 40% per month in low and middle-income countries, largely attributable to COVID-19. 

She examines the various difficulties experienced by women in healthcare and essential roles, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which included juggling medical duties and domestic responsibilities, facing an increased workload, and enduring greater gender disparities. She highlights female healthcare workers as first responders with higher vulnerability due to their responsibilities. Initiatives like surveillance efforts led by grassroots-level healthcare workers exposed them to greater risks, emphasizing gender disparities in the pandemic response.

Escalation of Gender-Based Violence

The speaker also delves into the disturbing increase in gender-based violence during the pandemic. She notes that despite societal beliefs in progress and civilization, incidents of violence against women and children surged rapidly. The policy of staying home, intended to control the spread of COVID-19, was also responsible for generating stress and anxiety, leading to an increase in intimate partner violence. The report cites a 33-34% increase in such cases during the early months of the pandemic, with 31 million additional gender-based violence cases reported globally by July 2020. Additionally, there is compelling evidence of an increase in child marriages, primarily driven by the closure of schools and the economic strains inflicted by the pandemic.

The speaker powerfully underscores the multifaceted impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and paints a stark picture of the challenges women have encountered during the pandemic, underscoring the need for comprehensive research, the formulation of informed policies, and robust international cooperation to effectively address these issues and provide vital support to women in times of crisis.

Acknowledgement: Reet Lath is a research intern at IMPRI.

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