PANDEMIC AND WOMEN – A PERSPECTIVE
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 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 the society in different ways. Some have been affected more than the others. However it is worthwhile to notice the impact of the pandemic on both the genders. Womenseem to have been at a greater disadvantage than men, in more ways than one and the pandemic seems to have increased the gender inequalities to an extent.
Firstly, the lockdowns imposed due to the pandemic, affected the supply of goods. People had access to only the essentials. Now what constitutes essentials. In the 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 from those from the poor and marginalized sections had access to sanitary pads in government schools, but with schools closing down and movements restricted, 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.Education and nutrition of girls has 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 case of girls as going to schools serves multiple needs – it provides access to education, nutrition in the form of a wholesome meal and 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 own contexts. The domestic workers were disadvantaged as job loss meant financial insecurity for most of these poor and marginalized women andfurther limited their access to food and health care services. As per one estimate, 72 per cent of domestic workers have lost their jobs the world over, 80 per cent of whom are women.
The female employers were also left with the added workload of managing the domestic chores along with attending to theoffice work online. In addition, with the schools and day care 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 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 nation wide lockdown was imposed. 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 the entrepreneurial women, more number of self-employed women have lost their jobs as compared to self employed men.
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. At 28 per cent, the gender pay gap in the health sector is higher than the overall gender pay gap, which stands at 16 per cent.
Thus the pandemic has brought to the forth,glaring gender inequalities and the disadvantage that women still face in the society. Women are still considered the primary caregivers and are expected to be the first responders to family needs irrespective of their own status or state of mind, health and well being. However, as we enter the new year with new hopes and aspirations, we all should endeavour to bring about a mindset change that makes this world a better, comfortable and more inclusive place for women for all times to come. Only then can we achieve empowerment of women in the true sense, lest the gender inequalities are bound to outlive the pandemic.
Dr Ankita Kansal
State Tax Officer, Punjab and author of the book “Covid-19:A Pandemic”.
(The views expressed are personal)