How the pandemic affected women-A perspective.........by Dr Ankita Kansal
It has been almost a year since the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and a century since the last global pandemic- the Spanish Flu of 1920 occurred. Much has been written and said about the COVID-19 pandemic now.
People have shared their experiences during the pandemic time on various platforms. While some had found back their lost hobbies during the lockdown and had positive experiences to share, most others were not as fortunate. The pandemic has affected different sections of society in different ways. Some have been affected more than others.
However, it is worthwhile to notice the impact of the pandemic on both genders. Women seem to have been at a greater disadvantage than men, in more ways than one and the pandemic seems to have increased the gender inequalities existing in the pre-pandemic time, to an extent.
Firstly, the lock downs imposed due to the pandemic affected the supply of goods. People had access to only the essentials. Now, what constitutes essentials? In common parlance, it comprises mostly food and medicines. However, one essential that was overlooked was related to women’s sanitary needs, menstrual products, and the like.
Earlier young girls from rural areas and those from the poor and marginalized sections had access to sanitary pads in government schools, but with schools closing down and movements restricted, these girls were left with no option but to use cloth at home which was unhygienic. This coupled with the access to health care services also being affected, worsened the situation further. Many girls and women had to silently suffer the resulting pangs.
The education and nutrition of girls have also been adversely affected. With family incomes dwindling and resources being limited, more girls than boys were forced to drop out of school. Estimates reveal that an additional 11 million girls may leave school by the end of the COVID crisis, the world over, further widening the gender education as well as gender nutrition gap.
This is more significant in the case of girls as going to school serves multiple needs – it provides access to education, access to nutrition in the form of a wholesome meal, and access to free/subsidized sanitary pads. Thus dropping out of school is more disastrous for girls as compared to boys.
Secondly, the domestic help stopped coming for work during the lockdown. This affected women on both sides of the spectrum in their peculiar ways. The domestic workers were disadvantaged as job loss meant financial insecurity for most of these poor and marginalized women and further limited their access to food and health care services. As per one estimate, 72 percent of domestic workers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the world over, 80 percent of which are women.
The female employers were also left with the added workload of managing the domestic chores all by themselves while attending to the office work online.
In addition to this, with the schools and daycare services closed, and kids at home, they too had to be looked after while helping them with the online classes and schoolwork. This added work piled up the stress – both physical as well as mental. Some had elderly and sick to look after as well and with outside nursing care unavailable, this too was an added responsibility.
This led to an increase in not just physical strain but also had a toll on the mental and emotional health of women. With increasing periods of confinement, a surge in cases of domestic violence was also noticed across all strata of society.
Statistics reveal that 1 in 3 women faced some sort of violence in the pre-pandemic period. As per the National Commission for Women (NCW) data, domestic violence complaints have increased by 2.5 times since the nationwide lockdown was imposed. This reflects cases that are being reported, while there may be as many that have gone unreported. This is nothing short of a pandemic brewing within a pandemic-in fact a sort of shadow pandemic.
Thirdly, the plight of migrants became quite evident in due course of time. Worse affected among them were women and kids who were forced to walk for miles without access to food, toilets, and medicines. One could see even pregnant women on the move, babies being born on railway platforms, in Shramik trains, etc. with no access to even the basic health infrastructure.
Further, it is estimated that the pandemic will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, 47 million of whom are women and girls. Thus, the pandemic-induced poverty surge will also widen the gender poverty gap i.e., more women will be pushed into extreme poverty as compared to men.
Usually, women are employed in less secure jobs, informal sectors, and earn less as compared to men, which increases their vulnerability in times of a crisis. Even among entrepreneurial women, more number of self-employed women have lost their jobs as compared to self-employed men, due to the pandemic.
The stress of unwanted pregnancies, sexual violence, and physical abuse also added to the woes of women during this period. At the same time, access to social and legal services was limited as most helplines were non-functional, shelter homes were closed and police and law enforcement agencies were overburdened with feeding people and providing essentials to the citizens.
As per a report by UN Women, globally 70 percent of health workers and first responders are women, and yet, they are not at par with their male counterparts, in terms of pay, etc. At 28 percent, the gender pay gap in the health sector is higher than the overall gender pay gap, which stands at 16 percent.
Thus the pandemic has made more evident the already existing, glaring gender inequalities and the disadvantage that women still face in society. Women are still considered the primary caregivers and are expected to be the first responders to family needs irrespective of their status or state of mind, health, and well-being.
However, as we enter the new year with new hopes and aspirations, we all should endeavor to bring about a mindset change that makes this world a better, comfortable, and more inclusive place for women to live in and contribute to their utmost potential, for all times to come. Only then we can achieve empowerment of women in the true sense, lest the gender inequalities are bound to outlive the pandemic.
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