[This post is based on the article “El rostro femenino de la COVID-19” (The female face of COVID-19) published in issue 10 of the journal Pensamiento Iberoamericano.]
A short while ago we passed the one year anniversary of the day the Euromerican COVID-19 outbreak was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has been a long year of global crisis and uncertainty, during which we have witnessed with concern how the pandemic, in addition to causing an extremely grave health emergency, has also exacerbated many existing inequalities as a result of both the social and economic impact of the pandemic itself and of the measures taken to control it. Women, in particular, have suffered and continue to suffer from the consequences of these inequalities, experiencing greater vulnerability and contending with new barriers to equality.
During the pandemic, women have suffered and continue to suffer from the consequences of these inequalities, experiencing greater vulnerability and contending with new barriers to equality
The pandemic has affected our society in many ways, with one of the most dramatic being its impact on gender-based violence, which has been fuelled by mandatory lockdowns that oblige women to spend longer periods in their homes with their aggressors and in an atmosphere of greater than usual tension. At the same time, lockdown measures have made it more difficult for women to access helplines and protection systems. According to data published by the Spanish Ministry of Equality, online consultations and other appeals for help from victims of violence rose by 650% between 1 March and 15 April 2020. Another repercussion of the pandemic has been the difficulties women around the world have faced in accessing sexual and reproductive health services, an outcome that will obviously lead to an increase in the risk of maternal mortality.
The situation has also had psychological consequences for women, having an impact on their mental health due to confinement in family homes characterised by constrained space and challenging living conditions, together with increased domestic tension and an unequal division of the domestic workload.
Women Are the Mainstay of the Care System
The increased care workload has had a particularly detrimental effect on women, an aspect that has not been sufficiently noted. The ILO Monitor indicates that 76.2% of all unpaid care work hours fall on women: more than three times the workload undertaken by men. Moreover, the vast majority of social care and health care workers in the world are women. They account for 70% of the workforce in social and health care systems, putting them on the frontline of exposure to the virus, increasing their risk, and consolidating their dual role as care workers in society and carers in the home.
ILO Monitor indicates that 76.2% of all unpaid care work hours fall on women: more than three times the workload undertaken by men<
Confinement measures and school closures have also made it more difficult than ever for women to reconcile paid work and the demands of family, further hampering their professional development. Women have shouldered most of the responsibility for childcare and the restrictions imposed did not take into account the problems they would encounter reconciling family care with their professional responsibilities. During the pandemic, women’s professional development has been hampered by the increase in their unpaid workload and they have been more likely to be laid off or affected by a loss of income. To all these factors, we must add the heightened impact of the pandemic on people working in precarious jobs and the informal economy, another group in which women predominate.
@sjobjio / Unsplash
Another factor that has resulted in more negative consequences for women during the pandemic is gendered inequality in access to the internet and new technologies. This has had a particularly adverse effect on households without adequate access to the internet, severely jeopardising women’s educational and employment development. The Global Fund For Women states that women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone, a key resource in developing countries, where phones provide access to safety networks, education, protection systems and money transfers, among other things.
Of course, all of these inequalities affecting women have a much greater impact on the lives of the more vulnerable groups, such as migrants, domestic workers, incarcerated women, single mothers, LGTBI women, and those living in rural areas.
Setbacks in the Progress Made To Date
Overall, the effects of the pandemic have resulted in a considerable setback in the progress made in recent decades in many areas, including the extension of women’s rights, social protection, a fair division of work, and protection against gender-based violence. And it would appear that we continue to overlook the indisputable fact that we cannot successfully end the current crisis without putting women at the centre of our decision-making process and prioritising them in all policies for economic reactivation and economic and social protection.
Overall, the effects of the pandemic have resulted in a considerable setback in the progress made in recent decades in many areas, including the extension of women’s rights, social protection, a fair division of work, and protection against gender-based violence
Urgent measures are required, including the implementation of positive action policies to ensure that women are involved, at all levels, in the decision-making about the COVID-19 response. It is also essential to analyse the current care system, shifting it towards a model providing stronger guarantees for its beneficiaries, greater protection and autonomy for caregivers (mostly women), professionalising the sector and reducing job insecurity, and promoting a fairer division of the care workload across our societies.
Telecommuting models also require corrective and compensatory measures designed to favour shared responsibility for the work-life balance of all the members of the family and to reduce the impact of the burden of care on women’s professional development. We also need to improve working conditions for social and health care workers and essential workers, address the gender wage gap, reduce segregation, and put in place policies designed to protect informal workers. All these measures must be complemented by plans in government stimulus packages that will economically empower women in various sectors.
Finally, it is important to double down on efforts to raise awareness about gender-based violence and the need to protect women, implementing measures and systems specifically designed for the current situation that will enable them to report violence and get access to effective protection services even during the pandemic.
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