Covid-19: Women and girls need special attention
The transmission of covid-19 has infected millions of people at galloping speed across the world and countries started devoting its resources to introspect its scientific and technical nature, however gendered impacts of disease outbreaks have yet not addressed and taken into consideration seriously, which might turn out to be another hidden crisis of human history. Unfortunately, governments' existing gender-neutral approach might become fatal for women with its spiral impact.
Considering gender-difference vulnerability of an outbreak, the UK Department for International Development suggested certain additional risks associated with covid-19 that include: violence against healthcare workers due to the serious stress; racial and sexual harassment with anecdotal reports of targeted sexualized attacks against women; abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women workers including street-based sex workers and domestic workers; and sexual exploitation and violence by state officials and armed guards.
There are already some emerged evidences of domestic violence with police reporting in Wuhan (China) showing it tripled during the quarantine.Covid-19 originated financial stress, job loss fear and resulted recessionary trend has spiked abusive behavior among men and triggered domestic and sexual violence against women and children. Increasing number of many such cases have been observed and recorded in several European countries until now.
Kosovo, Turkey and Brazil have reported similar cases and consequently the system facilitated some extended services to victims. Likewise, the French government declared financial support to counseling centers and shelter hotels that started supporting victims who escaped from home. In view of the situation, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, notes that women and children are among the most vulnerable in times of war, and face the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from the pandemic.
Parenthetically, it is assumed that women are responsible to perform the bulk of household chores and the non-cooperative behaviour and indifferent attitude, of family members along with lockdown has made the situation worse and disappointing. These informal unpaid care services to spouse and elders have put immense stress and pressure on women, which could be responsible for many chronic diseases for them in future.
Women's additional care responsibilities, such as childcare, also require additional support, longer hours and extra resource and especially when schools asked to facilitate the children's learning at home. Sudden lockdown and school's closures have put heavy caretaking burden on women and girls and it is feared that they are also at heightened risk of sexual abuse and teen pregnancy.
It is commonly acknowledged that household tasks such as grocery and vegetables shopping are mostly carried by the women. In this context, a recent comment by a Japanese mayor that 'men should grocery shop during pandemic as women take a longer time' does not seem logical at all, and rightly prompted popular Japanese journalist Shoko Egawa to tweet that 'people who know nothing about daily life shouldn't make comments'.
It is a matter of fact that, women-working or housewives, juggle between earning and caring, and have less leisure time and work more than their male partners to cope up with current unavoidable circumstances originated by pandemic. Helen Lewis wrote, there are evidences from history that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, because neither of them had child-care responsibilities.
Women are in the forefront of the ongoing corona war and facing greater risks. Women make up a majority of health care workers in the globe that constitute almost 70%, according to some estimates. In China's Hubei province, where the current coronavirus outbreak originated, about 90% of health care workers were women. In the USA, the number is around 78%.
The frontline women health workers are fearful of becoming infected may experience more stress and trauma relating to the covid-19, and ironically in social norms women and girls are the last to receive medical attention when they become ill. The cases could be worse for ageing women and women with chronic diseases. For instance, in Sierra Leone, one of the country's worst affected by Ebola, more women died in childbirth then infection because resources were diverted to the outbreak response.
Women's economic activities are also in a serious threat in the covid-19 crisis, especially in informal sectors with poor protections, where women constitute approximately 55% of the work force. The closure of many businesses could have a severe effect on many women-dominated professions. Abrupt travel barriers and lockdowns cause financial challenges and uncertainty for mostly women foreign domestic workers.
Women are facing greater job loss. Even in USA, as per Department of Labor, nearly 60% of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of pandemic cuts were held by women. In reality, differences may be observed in the recovery stages as well. Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher, told The New York Times 'Everybody's income was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa but men's income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women's income.'
There are plenty of online webinar, meetings and conferences going on to analyze and understand economic aspects of crisis, however, unfortunately we hardly see discussions on these key women issues. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez notes that out of 29 million published papers and with 15,000 peer-reviewed titles around the time of the Zika and Ebola epidemics only less than 1% explored the gendered impact of the outbreaks.
A gender-responsive plan is a necessity of current global fatal crisis. As measures, access to contraception, maternal health, menstrual hygiene products, and abortion services should be in the list of essential services. Greater women representation in policy-making might change the scenario. Despite the WHO recognition on the need to include women in decision making for outbreak preparedness, there is inadequate women's representation in national and internationalcovid-19 policy spaces.
The writer is a professor, ULAB School of Business, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh