This year, International Women’s Day takes on particular significance in view of the Covid-19 pandemic and its negative impact on women’s lives around the world. Women are on the front line in the fight against Covid. They are also the first to bear the socio-economic consequences of the virus.
“Never forget that it only takes a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights can never be taken for granted. You must remain vigilant throughout your life.” This quote from Simone de Beauvoir clearly resonates with what is happening in the world today. Although de Beauvoir omits health crises from her list, the accuracy of her warning is striking and raises important questions.
The Covid crisis has led to a decline in living standards for girls and women around the world. With access to school disrupted, massive job losses, domestic violence, increasing incidents of rape and teenage pregnancy, the situation is now critical, and the international community is calling for a major effort to raise awareness.
Women on the front line in the fight against Covid
This situation is all the more unjust given the major role played by women in the global effort to fight the pandemic. For example, in Ethiopia, the Minister of Health declared last April that the country “” And this role extends further than prevention efforts, with women accounting for more than 70% of the world’s health care workers.
Furthermore, this is not the only sector where women are overrepresented: according to a UN Policy Brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women, close to 60% of women’s employment is in the informal economy, making them considerably more vulnerable to the effects of the crisis. School closures and the increasing needs of seniors have automatically led to women spending more time doing unpaid work. Although women may work more than men, they have less opportunity to save, and are thus deprived of a financial safety net.
Sharp decline in gender equality during the crisis
A common stereotype is therefore being reinforced: . Gender inequality is on the rise due to the crisis. According to one , women are 1.8 times more likely than men to lose their jobs during the pandemic.
In Columbia, because of the coronavirus. In some cases, working mothers are forced to leave their jobs to take care of their out-of-school children. Moreover, this phenomenon is not only affecting women from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Indonesia, female university researchers are buckling under the strain of their family and domestic responsibilities, on top of work commitments, sending their productivity into free-fall. “I can only write at home at night, with what little energy I have left,” says an assistant professor and secretary at the University of West Java.
Girls’ access to education, one of the biggest drivers of progress in gender equality, is also on the decline. In 2020, 11 million girls worldwide were unable to attend school. This return to the household for women and girls is therefore having a negative and worrying impact. The UN has sounded the alarm in a report outlining the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls around the world.
Women’s bodies under attack
The repercussions of confining women to their homes during the pandemic are more far-reaching than the socio-economic impact. Incidents of rape have increased dramatically, as well as cases of domestic violence and teenage pregnancy.
In the Kenyan city of Nairobi alone, between March and May 2020, more than 500 of whom were aged between 10 and 14. For these girls and women, returning to work or school is even more fraught with difficulties. Such issues are a stark reminder of the crucial importance of programs that promote access to sexual and reproductive health care.
In addition to increases in rape and teenage pregnancy, domestic violence is also on the rise. Deprose Muchena, Director of Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office, says that “Lockdown measures have prevented women from escaping their abusive partners or from leaving their homes to seek protection.” In Tunisia, the hopes raised by the historic legal progress that has been made in the fight against gender-based violence have, in some sense, been shattered due to the health crisis.
Time for an awakening of conscience
In light of the current health crisis, this year, International Women’s Day presents an opportunity to raise awareness. A number of and public institutions are already rallying to this cause.
The UN has appealed to governments and NGOs to make girls and women a central focus of their socio-economic initiatives for the post-Covid world. A number of programs have already been launched, such as in Sri Lanka, where financial support has already been provided to more than 1,300 households run by women. Mexico is making similar efforts, with the roll-out of a program to prevent gender-based violence among indigenous communities.
While these programs are essential in an emergency, they tend to focus on the effects, rather than the causes. As part of the theme of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, one of the major challenges in bringing about fundamental and lasting change for women in the post-Covid world will be addressed: “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World.”
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.