Last updated December 8, 2020
As the predominant group in key sectors at the forefront of exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic, women face a higher risk of exposure than men. Additionally, women and girls are faced with a unique set of obstacles caused by the outbreak, including: increased incidence of sexual exploitation, gender-based violence, decreased access to reproductive and maternal health care, decreased economic opportunities, and more.
On the topic of gender equality, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia warns that “Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year.”
As primary caregivers and healthcare workers, women are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
- Women are on the frontlines of COVID-19 exposure, making up 67% of the health care workforce, according to a survey of 104 countries, and 80% of nurses.
- Worldwide school closures mean that over an estimated 1.54 billion children, including 743 million girls, are staying at home. As a result, women’s participation in work outside the home is likely to decrease, as they often take principal responsibility for children.
- Prior to COVID-19, it was estimated that women were doing approximately three quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid domestic and care work that are done each day around the world. That figure has only increased due to the pandemic as this burden continuously falls on women rather than men.
School closures paired with disrupted access to reproductive health services, particularly in rural and low-income areas, will lead to higher rates of unplanned pregnancies.
- Due to restricted access to contraception, it is estimated that the pandemic will lead to 5 million unplanned pregnancies – of which 7 million will occur in low- and middle-income countries. Furthermore, for every 3 months the lockdown continues, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that an additional 2 million women will be unable to access modern contraceptives.
- Disrupted access to reproductive health and maternal care services disproportionately affect women in low and middle-income countries. For example, according to a report by Plan International and UNFPA, there has been a 10-20% increase in the number of women who are not at all able to access family planning in Jordan due to the pandemic. In addition, the diversion of resources away from maternal care services during the pandemic could claim the lives of up to 113,000 women.
School closures and economic uncertainty are causing higher rates of gender-based violence against girls, including forced early child marriage, sexual exploitation, and female genital mutilation (FGM).
- A report by Save the Children predicts that the economic impacts of the pandemic could push an estimated 500,000 girls into child marriage in 2020, with 2.5 million at risk in the next five years. Together, with the 58.4 million child marriages taking place on average every five years, this amounts to a staggering 61 million child marriages by 2025. This increase is set to reverse 25 years of progress, which saw child marriage rates decline.
- In Lebanon, the second-most common form of reported gender-based violence was forced early marriage for girls, which the IRC attributes to the worsening global economic situation.
- Since programs addressing FGM are often interactive and communal, many have been disrupted by the pandemic. UNFPA estimates that this will lead to 2 million cases of FGM that would otherwise have been avoided.
Intimate partner violence, which disproportionately affects women, increases in the wake of emergencies.
Though reported crime worldwide has decreased, experts believe that there is an increased incidence of unreported domestic violence.
- Around the world, there has been an increase in police intervention for domestic violence cases; Google searches for domestic violence help have also increased.
- In Ukraine, the number of calls to the National Hotline on Combatting Domestic Violence has increased by almost 26% in the first two weeks of quarantine.
- Domestic abuse victims are more afraid to call for help during quarantine or social lockdown, as their partner is likely in the next room.
- UNFPA estimates that if the lockdown continues for 6 more months, an additional 31 million gender-based violence cases will occur.
- In August, the Global Protection Cluster – a UNHCR-led network of NGOs and UN agencies providing protection to those affected by humanitarian crises – reported that gender-based violence was occurring at a higher incidence in 90% of its operations.
- Acknowledging this worrisome increase, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for a worldwide domestic violence “ceasefire” in April, urging governments to prioritize women’s safety as they responded to the pandemic. As of November 30, nearly 150 countries have pledged to make prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of their pandemic response.
The global economic downturn is disproportionately impacting female workers, and in particular, women foreign domestic workers, migrant workers, and small-scale businesses owners.
- While the pandemic has caused job losses across all sectors, women are disproportionately affected: a UN report finds that 53% of women suffered reduced work hours, as compared to 31% of their male counterparts.
- Women are more likely to work in the informal economy, particularly domestic service – insecure positions which do not offer paid leave or the ability to work from home. In fact, women make up 80% of domestic workers, and 72% of domestic workers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Families around the globe depend on remittances sent home by the 100 million migrant women workers worldwide. Travel restrictions and limitations on in-person cash transfers are causing strain on this financial ecosystem.
- It is estimated that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty, and this poverty surge will widen the gender poverty gap with more women pushed into extreme poverty than men.
- Millions of women have either been forced to or have needed to stop working since the start of the pandemic. Based on a sample of 55 countries, there were 1.7 times as many women as men outside the labor force (321 million women compared to 182 men) at the end of June. The difference was highest in Latin America with 83 million women outside the labor force (up from 66 million prior to COVID-19) compared to 40 million men (up from 26 million before COVID-19).
Written by Emily Lim