Pandemics, like all public health crises, are inherently gendered phenomena, COVID-19 being no exception. Sini Ramo discusses here that despite existing research highlighting critical links between gender and health emergencies, outbreak preparedness and response efforts remain largely gender-blind, and the gendered nature of pandemics such as the current COVID-19 crisis is consequently left unexplored and without effective interventions.
Not only are women, men and people with non-binary identities affected differently by COVID-19, the longer-term impact of the crisis will continue to exacerbate and re-produce gendered inequalities across the globe. The projected short- and long-term gendered impacts of the pandemic are further compounded in conflict and humanitarian settings.
The securitisation of disease outbreaks has been gathering momentum for the past decades, elaborated for example in the work of Dr Stefan Elbe who notes that “bringing the dramatic connotations of security into play helps garner political attention and lubricates the flow of resources.” Outbreaks such as COVID-19 are not only framed as health issues, but inherently as risks to all levels of security – human, national, and international. While framing pandemics in the language of security harnesses much-needed resources and leadership, the focus must remain on tackling the virus from a people-centred human security standpoint, with a gender lens.
Although 20 years have passed since UN Security Council passed the landmark resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, gender analysis is often missing from preparedness and response to global (human) security and humanitarian challenges. The implications of COVID-19 for the Women, Peace and Security agenda are visible in its core pillars of protection, prevention, participation and relief and recovery, generating wider impacts for gender-based violence prevention and response efforts, women’s participation in peacebuilding and security structures, and humanitarian assistance.
While framing pandemics in the language of security harnesses much-needed resources and leadership, the focus must remain on tackling the virus from a people-centred human security standpoint, with a gender lens
Existing research points to men being more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus due to sex-based immunological differences and higher prevalence of pre-existing illnesses, many fuelled by gendered social norms, for example around smoking. However, women’s vulnerability exponentially increases due to their socially-ascribed caretaking roles, shaping women’s lived realities during times of conflict and peace.
Women perform three times as much unpaid care work at home as men, taking care of domestic chores and nursing sick family members, being exposed to greater health risks. The extra burden caused by the closures of schools and nurseries falls largely on women. Women also make up around 70% of the health and social sector workforce globally, rendering them exposed to the virus as they tackle the pandemic on the frontlines. There has also been a lack of attention to female health workers’ specific needs beyond personal protective equipment, including for menstrual hygiene and psychosocial support.
The LGBTQI community is also at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19 due to up to 50% higher smoking rates and higher prevalence of cancer and HIV than the general population, leading to compromised immune systems. Discrimination in health settings may make LGBTQI people more reluctant to seek medical care when needed.
Heightened protection concerns
Emergencies increase the risk of gender-based violence (GBV), particularly intimate partner violence (IPV). Movement restrictions and self-isolation, combined with the stress and economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, further add to the risk of GBV in households. Women and girls, as well as marginalised and vulnerable groups, including LGBTQI, are particularly at risk.
A Beijing-based women’s rights NGO reported receiving three times as many inquiries from GBV survivors than they did before quarantines started. The US National Domestic Violence Hotline reports a growing number of abusers using COVID-19 as a means to further isolate, control and threaten their partners.
However, evidence is limited from most countries since social distancing and other counter-measures have only quite recently started. Previous studies of health emergencies like the Zika and Ebola outbreaks point to an increase in GBV prevalence during crises. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, civil society organisations reported increased rates of gender-based violence, particularly domestic and sexual violence, as well as an increase in teenage pregnancies. Moreover, the overall securitisation and militarisation processes accompanying the response to public health risks, leading to an influx of military personnel into local communities, for example, may also lead to increased GBV rates.
As the need for GBV services drastically increases, available services are likely to dwindle as resources are diverted to dealing with the coronavirus response. The diversion in resources from routine health services has a major impact also on essential sexual and reproductive health services, such as pre- and post-natal care, abortion services and the availability of contraceptives.
GBV survivors will also be less likely to visit health centres due to existing movement restrictions and fears about contracting the virus. The need for mental health and psychological health services will increase with the stress and trauma related to the outbreak. Adding to the gendered burden of the disease, the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on existing justice and security structures can also weaken GBV survivors’ access to essential mechanisms.
The diversion in resources from routine health services has a major impact also on essential sexual and reproductive health services, such as pre- and post-natal care, abortion services and the availability of contraceptives
Where are the women?
Women are on the frontlines of the global healthcare response to COVID-19, disproportionately affected and burdened, yet largely missing from decision-making structures – women from low- and middle-income countries make up only 5% of leaders in global health organisations. Women frontline workers must be included in local and national policy and decision-making bodies centred on disease surveillance, detection and prevention. Inclusion must take the form of women’s meaningful participation and leadership in all decision-making processes in addressing the COVID-19 outbreak as well as in associated longer-term planning.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, we can expect losses in gains made in terms of women’s participation in peace processes and grassroots work around peacebuilding and community mobilisation. Continuing to support the meaningful work of women and girls as agents of change at the local level is key. Community networks established during peacebuilding efforts can be powerful in shaping the design and implementation of community engagement around COVID-19.
Women frontline workers must be included in local and national policy and decision-making bodies centred on disease surveillance, detection and prevention
The local and global response to COVID-19 must be people-centred and driven by comprehensive gender analysis informed by intersectional approaches. The consistent collection, analysis and use of sex-disaggregated data ensures that the specific needs of women, girls and marginalised groups are rendered visible.
The pandemic will have adverse effects on all sectors beyond protection, including education, food security, livelihoods and nutrition, and conflict-affected settings are likely to suffer the most. While the broader impact of COVID-19 remains yet to be seen, the gendered impact of the unfolding crisis is stark and already clearly visible.
As the world continues to tackle and contain the virus, we cannot afford to overlook the outbreak’s gendered dimensions and the new challenges expanding around women’s lived realities.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) only, and do not reflect LSE’s or those of the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security.