By Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sakshi Sharda
COVID has unleashed an unprecedented crisis. It threatens the process of fully realizing the SDGs and also exacerbates fragilities and inequalities within Nations. In addition, there has been a gendered impact of COVID when women and girls have paid a heavier price for the pandemic. Gender Impact Study Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute held a #WebPolicy Talk as part of the series – The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps with Mr Mohammad Naciri on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls in Asia and the Pacific. He is the Regional Director, UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok.
Professor Govind Kelkar, Executive Director, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation, and Chairperson, GISC, IMPRI, chaired the session. She explained that in India, there had been three major impacts of the pandemic and lockdown.
This is a continuing effect because no measures have been taken to address these gender concerns.
More women have lost their jobs and opportunities. One of the key reasons is that the industry’s most hit by the pandemic are leisure, hospitality, and education, which disproportionately employ females and males. Women work as insecure labour in the informal sector, having no provision of safety nets. Working from home is also challenging, raising the concerns of broadband access, availability of home office space, child care, and homeschooling.
The digital divide has also resulted in fewer women receiving necessary information. Mr Mohammad Naciri gave the example of Pakistan and Bangladesh, where women are less likely to receive life-saving information. Women employed in small and medium enterprises have borne a heavier burden of the pandemic. Ninety per cent of women business owners have reported a negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which 55% said giving less time to their business because of a rise in their caregiving activities.
“This sharp rise in unpaid care comes with no recognition.” M. Niaz Asadullah
Unpaid care work has also impacted the mental, emotional, and physical health of women. There has been a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the household burden. In Bangladesh, 55% of women reported an increase in unpaid care work compared to 44%. Thirty-three per cent of women and 20% of men have at the same time wrote a rise in the intensity of unpaid domestic care work.
The pandemic had only exacerbated the issue of unpaid care work. Mr Mohammad Naciri reported that in Asia and the Pacific Region, women spent four times on unpaid care than the time spent by men on the same. Due to gender-assigned rules, women are more likely to be engaged in care, provide educational support, and care for the elderly.
Professor M. Niaz Asadullah, Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, while agreeing with Mr Mohammad Naciri, pointed out that the majority of countries in Asia are poor and unable to comply with WHO guidelines for a secured home-setting. Given this situation, the responsibility has shifted to women to provide care for other household members. The state has also moved the burden of children from schools to home, increasing the burden of ‘mothers’.
He also explained that the pandemic had impacted women’s health negatively in terms of increased physical burden and their reproductive and sexual health. The pandemic has disrupted the supply of contraceptives, which has increased the risk of unwanted pregnancies that violate their reproductive rights. There is no present research that would evaluate the impact of such atrocities on women.
The issue is much more complex than a mere rise in the cases of domestic violence. COVID-19 safety restrictions imply that resources are not available to victims for reporting the crime, other than helplines. There is further disruption of support services for victims due to mobility restrictions, where victims of violence are forced to stay at home with their abuser. Resources from violence support have been diverted for COVID relief.
“COVID unleashed not one, but two pandemics for women as cases of domestic violence surged.” Mohammad Naciri
Violence against women has also manifested online as search queries of physical, sexual, and social violence have increased. For example, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Nepal had a surge in search of keywords like marks of an abusive relationship, signs of a violent relationship, and cover bruises on face grew by 47%, 63%, and 55%, respectively.
Nandita Baruah, Country Representative-India, The Asia Foundation, reminded us that the pandemic had hit a patriarchal world. So, it should not be surprising that it has a gendered impact. The more the intersectionality, the greater the inequity and variant will be the impact of the pandemic—the inability to access support when one most needed it had catastrophic results. The greater isolation caused further disempowered women.
Disasters have a gendered impact. Women’s exposure and vulnerability are exponentially increased due to gender inequality and a wider lack of agency. Asia and the Pacific continue to be the region most prone to disasters, where the disaster has impacted three out of four people living in the region. In the past year, the region has reported 46000 deaths due to disasters.
Given these statistics, COVID only adds as a compounding threat to the Asia Pacific Region. 6.9 million people are displaced, of which 48% are women and girls. Climate disasters are further increasing the vulnerability of the region. Countries with low coping capacities such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Papua New Guinea are disproportionately impacted in times of catastrophe.
The population is left prone to poverty, marginalization, and disempowerment across generations. Against this backdrop gender, inequality heightened exposure to risks, increased vulnerability and restrains capacity. It renders girls with an uneven ability to anticipate and recover from disasters.
“The intersection of COVID-19 with climate disasters is increasing the risk in the region.” Mohammad Naciri
Professor M. Niaz Asadullah poignantly recognized that the impact of a pandemic on women had not been homogenized throughout Asia and the Pacific. One simple reason is that different countries were at various stages of resolving systemic gender issues. While girls form the majority of pandemic-induced dropouts from school in India, Malaysia’s experience is starkly different. In Malaysia, boys are studying less at home.
The difference between baseline empowerment and distribution of capabilities by gender has resulted in a lopsided response to gender disparity. In southeast Asia, there is a strong state which has been able to sustain social security policies, but this has not been the case in South Asia because of the state capacity deficit.
It is a mistake to look at women as a homogenized group. There are differentiated impacts on different target groups like women migrant workers. These workers are working in more significant economic and livelihood insecurity. Women in South Asia are less likely than men to be covered by health insurance. Myanmar had the highest share, 33% of intra Asian migrants, where only 4% have legal status to give them decent working conditions.
Women are more likely to be undocumented, making women workers more susceptible to physical and sexual violence at each stage of migration. There are 34 million female migrant workers in Asia and the Pacific Region. They engage in economic activities that are now under threat due to lockdown, halting global supply chains, and discontinued production.
Women constitute 70% of workers in the health and social security sector globally. Women include the majority of the helpline workers and are indirectly impacted negatively by the COVID-19 pandemic, which puts them at greater risk. Even within this sector, the gender pay gap is 28%.
Women healthcare workers have called attention to their specific needs beyond protective gear. These included menstrual hygiene needs and psychological support. This needs to be prioritized with vaccine distribution which is not being done presently. At the same time, Nandita Baruah has warned about protectionism when it comes to hampering recovery. Like in Nepal, where women below the age of 40 needed permission from the ward to travel from Nepal, this happens to be recovery.
In the short term, the focus has to be on saving the lives of all, including care workers, by ensuring training, safety equipment, fair wages, and just work conditions. Information is empowerment, and women should have access to life-saving and sustaining information. There needs to be a community and outreach for all. Finally, we need to prioritize girls’ education by ensuring school closures do not translate into more significant dropouts.
Prioritize protections for sex workers, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people. We must continue all measures against human trafficking. The private sector is also a partner in the solution; they should have work from home facilities, paid leave, and provide flexible hours. Workers are offered adequate equipment for protection.
In the long term, the focus must be on higher female participation in the labour force. There should be steps to correct unpaid care work, redistribute, and recognize and monetize unpaid and underpaid workers. The care economy can be regularised and provide for certain occupations for women. There can be a transition from the informal to the formal economy through training and certification. To free women to participate as a labour force, we need to expand affordable childcare, improving household and travel infrastructure.