As India is entering its fourth week of national lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, one can’t help but fathom the gendered implications of the crisis. Although emerging evidence shows that more men than women are dying, potentially due to sex-based immunological or gendered differences, such as pattern and frequency of smoking, there are various invisible differences which mostly remain unaddressed and make women more vulnerable in this global pandemic.
With the unrestricted movement of people in the initial months of the spread of the crisis, the virus has transcended national borders and inadvertently spread throughout the world, affecting every nation of the globe. It has penetrated every aspect of our lives; affected the global economy, with the stock markets taking a plunge; migrant labourers and daily wage workers being suddenly rendered jobless due to no job security; people being laid off due to companies downsizing, as a result of the plummeting economy; and various marginalized communities having to face double discrimination. It has clearly impacted all our lives in different ways.
Looking at the crisis from different lenses, it can be inferred that it’s the women who are being impacted disproportionately by the pandemic. With many countries being under total lockdown, the pressure of managing household chores has increased for women as they are often the primary caregivers of the family.
Unlike various other data being analysed to compare situations before and during the crisis, it is difficult to measure how the situation has worsened for women, as unpaid work like household chores, performed by the women at home, is unmapped and uncaptured in the country’s GDP. It is often women who offer emotional support to the family members during times of crisis.
Despite having to put up with various patriarchal constructs, which are undoubtedly discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative, so much of this emotional labour goes unaccounted in the various indicators and metrics of national growth. According to an ILO report, women spend 4.1 times more time in unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific. The condition of India is particularly bad, and has to be acknowledged due to the fact that it has been estimated that women engage in 10-12 times more unpaid care work than men.
Under lockdown situations, countries throughout the world are seeing a steep rise in the number of domestic and sexual violence cases as a side effect of the lockdown, a pattern seen in all crises ranging from economic crises, conflict or outbreak of diseases. Even though men and women can both be victims of domestic violence, there has been an array of reports showing more women than men tend to be domestic violence victims throughout the world. Various activists in China have reported a surge in domestic violence complaints and helpline calls since early February. In France, the French police have reported that domestic violence cases across the country have jumped by more than 30% since the country went into lockdown, and in Paris alone, cases were up by 36%.
Closer to home, the National Commission for Women (NCW), an advisory body to the Government of India concerned with policies related to women, has also recorded a two-fold rise in gender-based violence during the lockdown period (since March 23 to April 1), and has subsequently launched a WhatsApp number to provide assistance and support to women in distress and violence during this lockdown situation.
The violence in many cases is not just limited to physical abuse of women but has also extended to their mental harassment, forceful isolation, constant surveillance of their behaviour and actions, and in many cases, limiting their access to basic necessities like food, water or sanitation. This rise in cases could be attributed to women having to be stuck with their abusive and controlling partners, rising frustration in both men and women which could stem from being trapped indoors or people being laid off from their jobs, experiencing salary cuts, pressures of debt repayment to loan sharks or unpredictable futures.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the disproportionate amount of women exposed to deadly infections in frontline healthcare jobs. According to the World Health Organisation, women constitute about 70% of the workers in the health and social sector. Lest we forget, the viral video showing female medical workers from a Chinese province collectively having to shave their heads off before being dispatched to help fight the coronavirus outbreak will be a stark reminder of the conditions women have to face.
Even in India, we see women account for 83.4% of the nurses and midwives, even though the percentage of overall health workers who are female is only 38%, with distributions changing substantially across states. With the workload being more demanding than usual at the moment and a deficiency in protective gear, it is taking a toll on not only their physical health, but also their mental healths, with an increase in symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia being reported in nurses in the frontline.
Not just for women and girls, but things have been particularly hard for women with disabilities, non-binary, gender non-conforming and LGBTQ community. They’re mostly victims of violence and abuse who have already been living on the brink of poverty, do not have enough access to resources to combat COVID-19, do not have equal access to education, paid lower wages, live without health coverage, sick leaves or paid leaves, usually rely on informal sectors of work with limited or no social security benefits, and some experience higher costs of living than other women due to disability-related needs.
This global pandemic no wonder needs a global response, but what is also needed is strong national response in the form of robust national policy, while shifting away from the gender-neutral approach. In addition to the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package and initiatives like the Kerala government’s suggestion to include Self Help Groups in food provisioning, the government needs to introduce policies with a strong gendered focus which can address the needs of women and other marginalised communities.
Various non-governmental organisations in the country continue to offer services to victims of domestic violence and abuse, mental health victims, etc., but these are expected to get strained with the sudden surge in cases and their limited financial resources due to an increase in demand. Shelters also run into the risk of spreading the virus, and hence, many are unable to take victims. The state needs to invest in primary health care and reproductive services for women, domestic violence response programs, and bolster the production of proper personal protective equipment so as to limit the risk of infection to healthcare workers. The state should also ensure that the basic needs of women with disabilities, non-binary, gender non conforming, LGBTQ community are addressed, and they can find alternative means of income and education. Therefore, there has to be a multilateral gendered response so we can ensure the proper health and well-being of the least fortunate in our society.