Unpopular Opinion? It’s The Truth: 4 Ways COVID-19 Put Women More At Risk Than Men
Don’t judge a pandemic only by what is reported.
Very few reports are inclusive of those that are less represented nor do they highlight how (and why) men and women are vulnerable as result of the pandemic. We also have to ask, what is going to happen in the future? What are the long term effects of the different consequences of COVID-19 on these groups? After all, COVID-19 has done little to stop the changes we’re seeing in the way society takes on socio-cultural norms and practices (like what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist sentiments).
To mark the theme of 2020s World Population Day (11th June), which happens to be based on safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls around the world especially during the time of COVID-19 pandemic, we’re looking at the evidence that suggests that the COVID-19 has a heavier impact on women.
So what are the aggravated issues that women face as a result of COVID-19?
Increase in gender-based violence i.e. domestic abuse
There’s no doubt about it, following the global lockdowns and quarantines, incidences of violence against women (especially within the household) have increased. According to the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), over 234 calls and messages from women in distress during the third week of April were made to them (and that’s only 1 week out of the months Malaysians were in lockdown). This was four times more calls and messages than they’d normally receive. And while this number is high, it only includes those that were able to make these calls and send these messages. Many of the women who were (and maybe still are) stuck at home were probably being monitored or controlled by their abusive partners. Speaking to The Star Newspaper, WAO head of campaigns Tan Heang-Lee said among the cases they have seen recently, one involved a woman who was locked up in a room during the MCO by her husband who beat her up and tried to strangle her. This issue is a global one, with the stress of the loss of income as well as the pressure of confinement taking a toll on individuals and relationships.
Another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reduction in support and safety for women who are looking for a way out. Most organisations and groups set up for women and girls who might have needed the help were faced with difficulties in running their shelters. The frontliners (police and medical personnel) were also struggling and overwhelmed, while forced to shift priority towards other side-effects of the virus.
Increased exposure to COVID- 19
The shocking truth is, women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally. At the same time, of the 70%, only 30% are CEOs and board chairs in global health. The 70% also encompasses the number of women who work in sanitation, cleaning and so on. This could be due to the stigma that men cannot be nurses and women are good at cleaning – but it does not minimise the fact that these women are in direct contact with contamination every second of the day. As an example, in Spain, 72% of the frontliners in healthcare that were affected by COVID-19 were women. In Italy, 66% of workers that were infected were female. For women who may not be out there working on the frontlines, it is highly likely that they are the ones caring for family members who may be ill, subjecting them to even greater risk of infection.
Less income and financial stability
Some countries still hold the misogynistic view that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, at home and with the kids. Meanwhile, most countries still pay women less than what a man – in the same position – would get. It’s no surprise then that women have weaker personal finances than men. Not only do women represent less than 40% of total employment, they are also 57% of those working part-time. Of those employed, many are employed in the lower-paying sectors of the economy.
This certainly gives the notion that women earn less and thus are saving less. To top that off, they are also more likely to be holding less secure jobs (i.e. those that are more likely to be affected by pay cuts and retrenchment). Most countries saw lay-offs happen first in the service sector (retail, hospitality, tourism), where – according to the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief – “women are overrepresented”. The brief also goes on to highlight how, in most developing economies (yes, that means Malaysia’s too) women have minimal protection against dismissals or for paid sick leaves.
This does not include what’s happening at home. With the quarantines and lockdowns happening all around the world, women (whether they are working or not) saw an increase in their household chores and found themselves having to juggle being a mother, a career woman, a wife and an individual. Schools closed, daycare centres closed and help was almost impossible to get with a restriction on movement. What’s worse is that it is more likely (than men) that they would have had to take on all this while being a single-parent.
Women lack access to contraceptives and necessities
In some places, tax is still levied on women’s hygiene products. In some countries, women’s hygiene products are seen as a luxury – not as the essential items that they are. Women, with our ‘unique’ health needs, somehow find ourselves in a position where access to good health services, medicines, maternal and reproductive health care and more are limited. If not limited, then available only at meteoric prices. Not something to want to worry about on top of the pay cuts, am I right? It was recently highlighted by the UNFPA that there is a possibility that – should lockdowns continue and more disruption happens in the healthcare industry – then 47 million women in low and middle-income countries might not have access to modern contraceptives. As a result, almost 7 million unintended pregnancies could happen. Heck, in Malaysia, the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) Health Unit head Dr Hamizah Mohd Hassan said to the New Straits Times that “the MCO could influx the country’s birth rate by early next year”, what with all the time married couples suddenly found on their hands while at home. But in countries where contraceptives are hard to find or its use frowned upon, the results could be catastrophic. Not only are we looking at an increase in adolescent pregnancies, but there’s also the possibility of an increase in the passing of STDs.
As a result, COVID-19 is testing humanity in ways we haven’t seen in a while. Generations are growing up in a ‘new normal’ and we can only educate ourselves on the reality that people (minorities included) are facing on a global scale. It is not enough to only care about what’s happening on our home soil. A world with equal opportunities is a safer, healthier and more progressive one that we should be striving for.