The pandemic has eroded women’s rights – but there is a way forward, says Nikki van der Gaag
2020 was not a good year for women’s rights. Women have borne the brunt of the effects of the pandemic, from home schooling to losing their jobs to domestic violence to a drop in girl’s education and a decrease in the availability of contraceptives. The overall global picture is as alarming as I have ever seen in many years of being involved in feminist writing, researching and activism.
In this first blog, I discuss seven of the many ways in which the pandemic has negatively affected women, bearing in mind that the impact has been, and will continue to be, different in different countries and contexts. A second blog will look at what needs to happen in order to sustain the improvements in gender equality and women’s rights over the past 25 years, and to use the pandemic as an opportunity for real and radical change for the better.
First, women have done by far the majority of childcare and home schooling during the pandemic. This has been true for all women around the world, who were already doing two to ten times more unpaid care and domestic work in the home than men. This has undermined their ability to do paid work, but also their physical and mental health. Women of colour have been particularly affected – research in the US by Oxfam and Promundo in June 2020 found that 57% of White women said their daily domestic and care work had increased, but that this rose to 71% of Black or African American women, 71% of Latina women and 79% of Asian women.
Second, women, especially those from Black and Minority groups, have been more likely than men to lose their jobs. This is partly due to unpaid care responsibilities and because women are more likely to have part-time or insecure work and be employed in sectors – from hospitality to retail – that are vulnerable in the pandemic. During the crisis, women’s jobs have been 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s. This also makes them more dependent on men, or much more likely to be pushed into poverty, particularly if they are single mothers. An analysis by UN Women and UNDP found that in 2021, 435 million women and girls are likely be living on less than $1.90 a day, many losing their incomes because of the pandemic. In addition, women are less likely than men to be able to access government social protection schemes.
Third, and linked to the above, lockdown has seen a surge in violence against women in the home. In April 2020, there were already predictions that there would be an additional 15 million cases for every 3 months of the lockdown. Many countries, from Lebanon to Zimbabwe, Malaysia to China, have seen a doubling or tripling of the number of calls to helplines. A survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that of the nearly one in 10 women who experienced domestic abuse from a current or former partner since the start of the pandemic, two-thirds said their partner had been abusive for the first time, or that their violence had become more frequent and severe.
Fourth, as a result of pressures on families, UN organisations are predicting a rise in the numbers of girls dropping out of school, as well as a rise in the numbers of child marriages, potentially resulting in an extra 13 million more girls being married under the age of 18 between 2020 and 2030. As a result of pressure on family life and because of the disruption to prevention programmes, an additional two million cases of female genital mutilation could occur over the coming decade.
Fifth, in many countries, the burden on the healthcare system is having wide-ranging gendered effects. Between 13 and 51 million women may be unable to access contraceptives, which could mean up to 15 million unintended pregnancies. Disruptions to healthcare may also mean an increase in maternal mortality. Also in relation to health, women make up 70 per cent of care workers and nurses on the frontline in most countries, risking their lives and their physical and mental health to help others, despite low pay and high risk, particularly for Women of Colour who make up a large proportion of this group in in the Global North.
Sixth, women are less likely than men to have access to technology – in 2019, the International Telecommunications Union found that the proportion of women using the Internet globally is 48 per cent, compared to 58 per cent of men. In relative terms, this means that the global Internet user gap is 17 per cent. This gap is similar for mobile phone usage, and both present a substantial problem when work and schooling in so many cases have gone online. Access to finances – including support or social protection during the pandemic – is often via mobile phones and access to education likewise, which leave girls and children from the poorest groups in every country once again at a disadvantage.
Finally, the pandemic is happening in a context of overall increasing inequalities and a rise in right-wing populism – evidenced from the US to India, Brazil to Hungary- which comes with a backlash against feminism and women’s rights. This may be one of the reasons why women’s representation in so many countries has been largely absent from COVID-19 responses to date. Research in 30 countries by Care International found that on average, women made up 24% of national COVID-19 committees – 74% had fewer than one-third female membership. This lack of representation was also found at local level.
And these are just the effects we have seen so far. Many organisations and groups are warning of long-term negative effects on gender equality- which still had a long way to go before the pandemic, unless major changes are made.
But is it just possible that, instead of moving backwards, the pandemic could help to improve women’s rights and gender equality? I believe there are some positive signs. For example, countries where there are women leaders seem to have found better ways to weather the crisis. Care, although it continues to be seen as women’s work, has been front and centre as never before– though this has rarely been backed up with either resources or action. More men have been involved in home-schooling and looking after their children. Many people are building new movements and connections in their communities and across the world and challenging old ways of working and thinking, including Black Lives Matter on race and racism and many groups on the vital issue of climate change. Young feminists are creatively imagining new ways of doing and being across time and space.
Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy threw out a challenge to the world in April 2020 when the pandemic first took hold. She said: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.’ If we are to build that next world, let’s put both power and money behind it. Let’s move away from systems, approaches and beliefs that are broken. And let’s use this opportunity to truly imagine the world anew – more caring, more equal, more ethical, and more sustainable than the last one.
Nikki van der Gaag is an independent consultant and writer and former Director of Gender Justice at Oxfam GB.