Women and COVID-19: Five things governments can do now

By UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia


Governments the world over are struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. While some voices have flagged the impacts on women, gender concerns are not yet shaping the decisions that mainly male leaders are making. At the same time, many of the impacts of COVID-19 are hitting women hardest. Here’s why:

First, while the economic and social impacts on all are severe, they are more so for women. Many of the industries in the formal economy directly affected by quarantines and lockdowns—travel, tourism, restaurants, food production—have very high female labour force participation. Women also constitute a large percentage of the informal economy in informal markets and agriculture around the world. In both developed and developing economies, many informal sector jobs—domestic workers, caregivers—are mostly done by women who typically lack health insurance and have no social safety net to fall back on. 

At the same time, women typically shoulder a greater burden of care. On average women did three times as much unpaid care work as men at home even before COVID-19. Now, formal sector female employees with children are balancing one or more of the following: work (if they still have it), childcare, homeschooling, elder care, and housework. Female-headed households are particularly vulnerable.

Second, the crisis is having an impact on women’s health and safety. Apart from the direct impacts of the disease, women may find it hard to access much needed maternal health services given that all services are being directed to essential medical needs. Availability of contraception and services for other needs may become disrupted. Women’s personal safety is also at risk. The very conditions that are needed to battle the disease—isolation, social distancing, restrictions on freedom of movement—are, perversely, the very conditions that feed into the hands of abusers who now find state-sanctioned circumstances tailor-made for unleashing abuse. 

Third, because the majority of frontline health workers—especially nurses—are women, their risk of infection is higher. (By some estimates 67 per cent global health force is women). So, while attention must be paid to ensuring safe conditions for ALL caregivers, special attention is needed for female nurses and carers—not only in access to personal protective equipment like masks but also for other needs such as menstrual hygiene products—that may be easily and inadvertently overlooked, but are essential to ensuring they are able to function well. 

Finally, it is striking how many of the key decision-makers in the process of designing and executing the pandemic response are men. When any one of us switches on the television anywhere in the world we see a sea of men. This is not surprising given that women still do not enjoy the same degree of participation in major decision-making bodies—governments, parliaments, cabinets or corporations—as men do. Only 25 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide are women, and less than 10 per cent of Heads of State or Government are women. While we have a few shining examples of women Heads of State or Government, women are conspicuous by their absence in decision-making fora in this pandemic. 

Here are five actions governments can take now to address these issues: 

First, ensure that the needs of female nurses and doctors are integrated into every aspect of the response effort. At a minimum, this means ensuring that menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads and tampons are available for female caregivers and frontline responders as part of personal protective equipment. This will ensure that they do not face unnecessary discomforts in already challenging situations. But most importantly, talk to the caregivers and listen to their needs and respond. They deserve all the support we can provide right now, particularly support in terms of much-needed critical medical equipment. 

Second, ensure that hotlines and services for all victims of domestic abuse are considered “essential services“ and are kept open and law enforcement is sensitized to the need to be responsive to calls from victims. Follow the example of Quebec and Ontario, which have included shelters for women survivors in the list of essential services. This will ensure that the pandemic does not inadvertently lead to more trauma, injury and deaths during the quarantine period, given the high proportion of violent deaths of women perpetrated by intimate partners. 

Third, bailout and stimulus packages must include social protection measures that reflect an understanding of women’s special circumstances and recognition of the care economy. This means ensuring health insurance benefits for those most in need and paid and/or sick leave for those unable to come to work because they are taking care of children or elders at home. 

For informal sector employees, who constitute the vast majority of the female labour force in developing economies, special efforts should be made to deliver compensatory payments. Identifying those informal sector workers will be a challenge and will need to take account of a country's particular circumstances, but it is worth the effort to ensure more equity in outcomes.

Fourth, leaders must find a way to include women in response and recovery decision-making. Whether at the local, municipal or national level, bringing the voices of women into decision-making will lead to better outcomes; we know from many settings that diversity of views will enrich a final decision. Alongside this, policy-makers should leverage the capacities of women’s organizations. Reaching out to enlist women’s groups will help ensure a more robust community response as their considerable networks can be leveraged to disseminate and amplify social distancing messaging. The Ebola response benefited from the involvement of women’s groups, why not this? 

Finally, policy makers must pay attention to what is happening in peoples’’ homes and support an equal sharing of the burden of care between women and men. There is a great opportunity to “unstereotype” the gender roles that play out in households in many parts of the world. One concrete action for governments, particularly for male leaders, is to join our campaign, HeForShe and stay tuned for more information about “HeforShe@home”, whereby we enlist men and boys to ensure that they are doing their fair share at home and alleviating some of the care burdens that fall disproportionately on women.

These actions and more are urgent. Building in the needs of women offers an opportunity for us to “build back better”.

What better tribute to our shared humanity than to implement policy actions that build a more equal world?