Like most things in life, coronavirus has a gendered impact. Previous experience with viruses like Ebola and Zika has shown how these crises tend to have particularly harmful effects on women and girls and reinforce gender inequality.
Now, although it is early days, we can see similar patterns emerging regarding the coronavirus – including within Ireland. While initial data indicates that women are less susceptible to the virus than men, there are several key reasons why women are impacted more by this coronavirus.
Firstly, front-line health professionals and workers are more likely to be women, which means women are more likely to be exposed to this virus (with all of the related impacts on their health, wealth and wellbeing). Globally, around 70% of the global health workforce are women.
Secondly, women are more likely to be casual or part-time workers without sick leave or other work entitlements putting them at a higher risk of wage loss or unemployment. This is especially the case for low income or migrant women who tend to be employed in hospitality, retail or other service industries. Women’s wages also take longer to recover than men’s after crises – as evidenced during the Ebola crisis.
Thirdly, the coronavirus is being called a ‘disaster for feminism’ by The Atlantic – because as children are sent home, decisions will have to be made regarding who will mind them. This will likely mean a considerable increase in the volume of unpaid work carried out by women. Women are also likely to be responsible for looking after COVID-19 patients at home. It is feared that women’s work and incomes will suffer more than men’s during this period ‘making women’s independence a silent victim of the pandemic’. Globally, girl’s schooling will also be disproportionately impacted by school closures (including in non-obvious ways, e.g. moves to teleschooling due to the digital divide issues many women face).
Fourthly, domestic and sexual violence rise during crises like these – termed the ‘silent epidemic’. Not all homes are safe, and so women are at heightened risk of controlling behaviour, verbal abuse and violence during times of quarantine and lockdown. Rights groups in Ireland have been working to draw attention to these issues.
Fifthly, women face challenges in accessing the services they need, including sexual and reproductive services and services for maternal care. During the Ebola crisis, more women died of obstetric complications than the disease, but these secondary deaths attract less attention.
I could continue because there are so many ways in which women are impacted differently to men – but I will stop there. However, it must be emphasised that already-disadvantaged women, including migrant women, homeless women, and women in direct provision, face double layers of discrimination and have more limited access to healthcare and protective items than the general population. During this time of collective stress and uncertainty, we can perhaps experience greater solidarity with these women whose daily experience already involves a high degree of stress from their living conditions and uncertainty about their futures.
In Ireland, groups like the NWCI and Women’s Aid are doing Trojan work to remind women they are not alone during this time and making sure key supports for women are continued. Recent confirmations from the Irish government that it is safe for migrants (documented and undocumented) to access essential services are also essential. However, more needs to be done by our government to ensure the most vulnerable are protected during this crisis.
The increased burden faced by women during COVID19 highlights the ways in which women are disadvantaged within our society – still saddled with the brunt of unpaid care work and domestic work, at heightened risk of domestic violence and abuse, and faced with gender gaps at work and at home.
While one might expect the unique experiences of women at times like these to mean they will be included in decision-making around the crisis, and in gender-proofing our decision-making, this is unfortunately not the case; in fact, gender issues are being largely ignored. And, valuable opportunities are being missed to gather data or conduct research on the gendered-impact of the coronavirus which could help us better prepare for future epidemics.
As we face into the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, it is important that we do not treat gender as a side issue – there is too much at stake. Rather, we might see this as a crucial opportunity for leadership based on principles of intersectionality and mutual care.
More to come from STAND on how the coronavirus impacts women over the next few weeks and months – stay tuned.
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