COVID-19, women, and girls: Not ‘the great equalizer’

May 22, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti

An epidemic or pandemic is a challenge for everyone. But those challenges don’t come equally for every member of a community. 

Gender inequality is one of the biggest barriers to ending extreme poverty and hunger — and it’s also the prime reason that COVID-19 is affecting women and girls in developing countries more than anybody else. Here’s why:

1. Emergencies deepen existing inequalities

Call it a pre-existing condition: In countries and communities that already have a prevalence of marginalization (inequality of gender, age, ability, social status, or most likely a combination of inequalities), emergencies and crisis situations help to widen that gap.

In countries like Afghanistan (where women are often excluded from basic rights like education, decision making, and financial independence) or South Sudan (where nearly 1 in 2 women will experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence), this increase in disparity can lead to years of lost progress or even loss of life. Remember, pandemics hit the most vulnerable people hardest.

Afghan women fully covered

Women in Northeastern Afghanistan wait to receive humanitarian assistance. Photo: Concern Worldwide

2. Most frontline health workers are women — but they don’t always have a voice

According to the UNFPA, nearly 3/4 of the global health and social sector is female, including frontline healthcare within communities. This obviously increases the risk of more women contracting COVID-19, especially since many of the PPE equipment delivered to communities is sized for men and therefore not as effective for women.

But the risk for infection is just the tip of the iceberg. As we’ve seen at home and abroad, the emotional needs of healthcare workers (especially those on the frontline) are more important than ever in a pandemic. Women especially need to be given a seat at the table when it comes to COVID-19 response planning and decision-making. Even with 75% of those working in the health and social sector being female, those who are working on the frontlines and noticing trends or warning signs may go ignored in their community if gender inequality is the norm.

3. A higher male mortality rate also impacts women

According to a recent study published by the nonprofit Global Health 50/50, men have a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 (between 10% and 90% depending on the country). However, this doesn’t mean that women who survive the novel coronavirus have an easier future ahead of them.

In fact, a higher male mortality rate means a potential increase in female-headed households, which in some countries means severe socio-economic implications. Female-headed households can be more vulnerable to harassment and violence, especially for displaced families. Losing a patriarch can, in especially vulnerable communities, also cut a family off from regular income and increase the likelihood and severity of poverty.

Ethiopian family

Mestawat Sorsa, pictured with her sons Abinet and Zekiyos ndear their home in Ethiopia. Following the death of her husband 7 years ago she says the family struggled to survive.

4. In a pandemic, women and girls are most likely to take on the extra labor

Even if you aren’t a healthcare worker, caring for the sick — whether it’s in your own family or at a community level — is a job that generally falls to women. Again, this increases the risk of exposure and makes social distancing an impossibility. It also reduces a woman’s ability to earn an income, and often means that women and their daughters are left to pick up the slack and take on additional housework.

Many schools are shut down, and even if remote learning is available, girls may be forced to skip out on their studies in order to support their mother with caring for other family members, collecting water, or handling other household chores. We’ll look more at education in a bit, but what’s especially important to note here is that social distancing and isolation aren’t applicable to every situation, and we need to adapt with specific advice and solutions for those who can’t avoid close contact with others.

5. COVID-19 lockdowns mean increased gender-based violence

The financial, social, and health stressors of a pandemic, combined with close confinement during lockdowns, mean that women and girls are at a higher risk of violence from their family members, domestic partners, or within a community. We saw this happen during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, with increased incidences of gender-based violence, and fewer resources for women and girls who were experiencing abuse (given the increased demand for healthcare workers in helping to halt the spread of the virus).

Already, we are seeing a similar pattern play out with COVID-19 and cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Emerging data from the UN show increases between 25 and 33% of reports of domestic violence and emergency calls in a handful of countries including France, Cyprus, and Singapore. In more vulnerable communities, such as the informal refugee settlements in Iraq and Lebanon, where women and girls are already more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, these risks are even higher. It’s critical at this time that we include resources on stress and anger management for families and engage men and couples in sessions on the impact of lockdowns and ways to mitigate violence as a negative coping mechanism.

Concern Worldwide Lebanon staff member on phone

Siba Bizri, Concern’s Case Management Officer in Lebanon, answers calls to the hotline for gender-based violence.

6. A pandemic can end a girl’s education

In many of the countries where Concern works, being a girl is already a barrier to education. When the barrier is amplified by a health crisis and a potential lockdown, this makes maintaining an education difficult for all children, but especially so for girls. If the effects of COVID-19 continue to impact poverty and hunger, it could even result in a young girl being married off in order to lessen her family’s financial burden.

For girls making the switch to learning at home, it’s important to consider the needs and risks among the most vulnerable families, especially around stress management and helping parents create a supportive learning environment. What’s more, when the crisis has passed and schools can reopen, it’s also critical to ensure that girls go back to school, and that those who are directly affected by COVID-19 (survivors, orphans, unaccompanied minors, and pregnant girls) are given extra psychosocial support to be emotionally ready for the classroom once again.

7. Health crises threaten maternal and child health

Countries with limited healthcare systems may need to pool all of their resources into simply surviving an outbreak like COVID-19. Even in countries like the United States, we’ve seen this happen with hospitals that lack the staff and resources to both respond to an outbreak and the other day-to-day health needs of a community.

Closeup of a you girl

A young girl at a temporary displacement camp in DRC

Maternal and child health services must be protected, to ensure gains already made are not lost. Women who are pregnant or nursing need ongoing support to ensure a safe birth and a healthy baby. Another critical area is sexual and reproductive health, ensuring that girls don’t become pregnant early on. That’s a real risk with lockdowns and extended school closures.

The Concern Fund for Women and Girls

As a champion for the rights of women and girls worldwide, Concern has spent the last 50 years working relentlessly to close the gender equality gap. We refuse to let COVID-19 rob 50% of the world’s population of the hard-won gains we have achieved together. This is why we’ve launched The Concern Fund for Women and Girls, which will allow us to support millions of women and girls in 23 countries — both during this crisis, and for the long run to ending extreme poverty. Your investment in Concern’s Fund for Women and Girls will empower us to:

  • Reach the most vulnerable women and girls with life-saving and life-changing solutions to some of the world’s most complex challenges and crises
  • Mobilize immediately when disaster strikes, making sure all emergency response efforts focus on the needs of women and girls to help communities rebuild more quickly and sustainably
  • Expand our programs focused on supporting women and girls, particularly in education, health, and economic development
    Engage men on gender equality to create and facilitate positive, lasting change

Get updates on the fight against COVID-19 in the most vulnerable communities