Bearing the brunt

Written by Lorna Hutchinson on 6 April 2020 in News
News

The Coronavirus outbreak is disproportionately impacting women. Lorna Hutchinson looks at the crisis through a gender lens.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock


The rapid spread of COVID-19 has had devastating repercussions across geographies and societies; none of us are immune. But despite progress in the fight for gender equality in recent years, this crisis is taking a heavier toll on women.

With children in many countries now unable to attend school in efforts to contain the virus, mothers are often the primary caregivers who shoulder the burden of care for both children and households.

Women also make up a disproportionate amount of healthcare workers – a sector that has come under immense strain during the Coronavirus crisis, as hospitals and medical professionals struggle to cope with the influx of new cases every day.


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According to the United Nations, women globally make up 70 percent of workers in the health and social sector and do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men.

UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said, “The majority of health workers are women and that puts them at the highest risk. Most of them are also parents and caregivers to family members.”

“They continue to carry the burden of care, which is already disproportionally high in normal times. This puts women under considerable stress. In addition, the majority of women work in the informal economy, where health insurance is likely to be nonexistent or inadequate and income is not secure.”

“Because they are not well targeted for bailouts, they are financially on their own. This is not simply a health issue for many women; it goes to the heart of gender equality.”

“Even without a crisis, caring responsibilities usually fall heavily on women. Now with the closure of schools and workplaces, their unpaid workload is likely to further increase”

The European Women’s Lobby (EWL), the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in the EU, also expressed its concern for women and girls bearing the burden of the Coronavirus crisis, saying, “In these immensely difficult times for all people and societies in Europe and globally, the EU and its Member States must show political leadership and urgently ensure that gendersensitive responses are implemented so that the price of these current crises is not paid by women, especially the most marginalised.”

EWL pointed out that with women making up the majority of those currently working in hospitals, providing essential care and cleaning services, or continuing to work in retail, hospitality and education that enable the rest of the community to live in self-isolation, “we are reminded about how invaluable women’s care work is to the wellbeing and functioning of our societies and planet”.

These sentiments were echoed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), which said that the Coronavirus crisis will reveal the different realities of women and men. “Even without a crisis, caring responsibilities usually fall heavily on women. Now, with the closure of schools and workplaces, their unpaid workload is likely to further increase.”

“If older relatives get sick, they will also need looking after. The situation for single parents can be even more difficult, especially when options for informal childcare are unavailable.”

EIGE pointed out that the closure or near-closure of many businesses could also have a severe effect on many women-dominated professions.

“These times of social isolation increase the risk of domestic abuse. Women in violent relationships are stuck at home and exposed to their abuser for longer periods of time”

“Flight attendants, tour operators, sales assistants, hotel cleaners and hairdressers are often already in precarious jobs and will probably not be paid nor entitled to paid sick leave. These people are likely to have difficulty paying for basic necessities such as groceries, rent and bills in the coming days and months.”

Research carried out by EIGE shows that a quarter of women employees across the EU are in a precarious job. For migrants, the situation is even worse, with 35 percent of non-EU born women working in precarious jobs.

According to the Party of European Socialists (PES) Women, even in the best of circumstances, gender inequalities are too often ignored. “Now during the Coronavirus crisis, women are more affected than ever. All over Europe, we are hearing heartwarming calls for solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

“Let’s extend that solidarity also to the women shouldering the heavy burden of caring for the sick, the young and the vulnerable. We are not yet seeing enough action to address the gendered impacts of the pandemic.”

PES Women pointed out that because COVID-19 is most easily spread between family members who are in frequent contact, this means women face a higher risk of exposure to the virus at home.

“On top of this, increased care responsibilities, anxiety and economic instability place a huge mental toll on women, and particularly on single mothers.”

A particularly dark side of the COVID-19 outbreak is that domestic violence can make enforced self-quarantine almost as dangerous as the virus itself.

Greens MEP Terry Reintke has been working to bring this crucial issue to the attention of lawmakers, highlighting that in China reported cases of domestic violence almost doubled during the Coronavirus lockdown period.

“For a lot of people, the social distancing measures - no matter how important they are - mean a horrific reality: they are trapped in situations of domestic violence.”

Together with fellow Greens/EFA deputies, François Alfonsi, Rasmus Andresen and Benoît Biteau, Reintke has written to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel and European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli to recommend and encourage Member States to implement preventive measures to avoid a situation where the crisis produces even more victims.

These include the reinforcement of helpline services, the establishment of online legal help, the financing of refuge shelters for victims as well as ad-hoc campaigns run by the Commission to inform and warn about domestic violence.

“We call on the Commission and the Council to ensure that Member States will not reduce or divert existing resources from critical services that women rely on, such as routine health checks, helplines, shelters or any other essential gender-based violence service,” the MEPs said in their letter. These concerns were also aired by EIGE, which said, “These times of social isolation increase the risk of domestic abuse. Women in violent relationships are stuck at home and exposed to their abuser for longer periods of time. This makes it very difficult for them to call helplines as the perpetrator is always around. It can also be harder for women to leave their abuser once the crisis is over, due to the financial insecurity that might follow. Neighbours or relatives can play an important role in contacting the police if they suspect that violence is occurring, especially when the victim is not able to call for help.”

“Even in the best of circumstances, women at risk of violence are often ignored. That is why it is more important than ever that authorities do not lose sight of this issue”

PES Women expressed the worry that social and institutional support services, as well as emergency hotlines for domestic violence, may now be operating under a reduced service.

“Even in the best of circumstances, women at risk of violence are often ignored. That is why it is more important than ever that authorities do not lose sight of this issue. They must inform and train police, as well as other support services, so that they can adapt to changing patterns of domestic and intimate partner violence in times of crisis.”

About the author

Lorna Hutchinson is deputy editor at the Parliament Magazine

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