Is Covid-19 gender neutral?
In the context of Bangladesh, gender balance in both family and socio-economic activities has always been a major issue due to unequal distribution of wealth and money among women. Given our male chauvinist society, the predominant stereotyped notion of women being the childrearer, caregiver and leader of household activities has resulted in a few options for women to generate income and become self-sufficient. Nevertheless, women's role and responsibilities in households have always overshadowed her economic inclusion and success regardless of any perceptible contribution ranging from country's economy to children's education in family.
The COVID-19 crisis, coupled with the perpetual gender inequality, has brought a different degree of apprehension over women in Bangladesh. The negative impact of COVID-19 over women, particularly involved in specific services or professions, socio-economic conditions, and geographic locations, is higher than men.
As per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the total number of registered nurses in Bangladesh is 22,803. Out of these, 18,707 are females and only 1,927 are males. It is evident that females, being the dominant gender, have outnumbered men in the domain of healthcare service.Yet, the aftermath of such triumph during COVID-19 pandemic is devastating. Women are over-represented and highly exposed amongst care givers/nurses in public/private hospitals, clinics, and other health care service providers.The likelihood of close contact between female nurses and Corona infected patients is disproportionatelyhigh. Hence, women have already become the most vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19 infection due to the overexposure healthcare service.The riskof infection further extends to the individuals who are closely associated with the female nurses, i.e. family members (children, infants, elders),acquaintance, neighbors, coworkers, housekeepers. Pregnancy and postpartum dependency amplify theCOVID-19 impact even more.
Similar health risk over womenalso prevails in the RMG sector, known as a women-driven sector. According to the survey, "Ongoing Upgradation in RMG Enterprise: Preliminary Results from a Survey", conducted by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in 2018, RMG sector of Bangladesh consists of 3,596 active factories with 3.5 million workers, of which 60.8% are female. Such large number of female workers is directly involved in income generation which is a crucial factor to ensure financial sustainability in their families and better upbringing of their children with access to food, nutrition, healthcare, and education.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought manifold impacts over female garments workers. The reopen of garments and restoration of economic activitieswill create even bigger health issues among the female workers. Congested workplace withclose proximity and absence of disease control mechanismare fairly common in RMG sector due to lack of compliance and workplace regulation. Such working environment makes COVID-19 more transmittable than any other disease among the femalegarment workers.
Along with the heath and economic impact, domestic violence against women and children is on rise amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The mental health of household members is being exacerbateddue to lack of social activities and financial pressures. Male members, especially husbands, are becoming increasingly frustrated at home due to a lack of earning and social interaction, job loss, and increasing demands of basic needs in family. Unfortunately, the only 'way out' is to vent their frustration by torturing their wives and children.
According to a recent survey by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), a local human rights organization, at least 4,249 women and 456 children were subjected to domestic violence in 27 out of 64 districts of Bangladesh in April, 2020.Surprisingly, 1,672 women and 424 children are facing violence for the first time in their lives. Such increased number of victims was unanticipated, yet, inevitable. The lockdown has made women and children more vulnerable and prone to domestic violence and abuseas many of them are confined to their homes with no outside contacts or support.
The social and geographic positions of women in vulnerable and indigenous communities have added a new layer of crisis to the current situation. Lack of socio-cultural rights, decision making power, access to education and healthcare, and physical communication have cornered women and children to get COVID-19 responsive aid and healthcare services. The intensity of such shortcomings is disproportionately high among the female members of village communities living in geographically remote areas. Women involved in agricultural activitiesin rural areas are paying higher price to minimizepost-harvest losses.Climate change, natural calamities, impact in coming months can overburden the COVID-19 crisis if gender responsive mitigation measures are not taken.
Evidence from around the world, including our neighboring countries, suggests that women are more vulnerable to both health and economic impact caused by COVID-19 crisis, compared to men.Given this current context, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not likely to be gender-neutral. Without a proper and timely response, it can be predictable that women will pay the price even higher than men. It is needless to say that response to COVID-19 crisis must include gender inclusivemitigation plan that can examine impacts through the lens of gender and design gender responsive policies to fight the pandemic.
The writer is a social and gender specialist