The question being raised is whether the unique situation created by the COVID-19 virus and its aftermath have adversely impacted the progress towards gender equality in recent years. While a global concern, it relates more to developing countries and communities classified as 'Fragile, Conflict, and Violence (FCV)'.
The economic independence of women has played a vital part in determining their status in a society that is clearly weighted against them. When the economy declines and employment opportunities become scarce, the women's lot gets far worse. COVID 19 has devastated economies across the world, and its fallout has impacted all strata of society. In many ways, the female gender has been the worst affected.
According to the United Nations, women aged 25 to 34, globally, are more likely to live in extreme poverty than men (United Nations, 2020). One major reason is the different sectors in which men and women work, especially in emerging countries. Women tend to cluster in the informal economy, while men mainly work in the more secure formal sector. In fact, in developing economies, women account for 70 per cent of employment in the informal sector (UN Foundation, 2020). Jobs in the informal economy are less secure and vanish quickly whenever there is a crisis. This puts women in a more vulnerable position than men, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Of the 39 per cent of global employed women, 54 percent hold jobs in accommodation and food sectors, 43 percent in retail and wholesale trade, and 46 percent in other services (McKinsey & Company, 2020). These sectors are among those worst hit by COVID-19.
The outbreak has also led to the problem of unpaid care work, where women are bearing a greater share of the responsibility. Before the lockdown, women were able to hire help to organise childcare, homeschooling, caregivers, etc. With the lockdown, where the external systems that provide these services closed or were limited, the burden came on women. All these responsibilities leave little time for paid work. In the U.S., one in four women (estimated at 20 million) is contemplating leaving the workforce or reducing work hours as a result of the added at-home responsibilities (McKinsey & Company, 2020). Since women bear more of the burden, they are having a difficult time juggling unpaid work at home and paid work.
In India too, in a typical low-income urban household, while the husband may be working in the informal sector as a rickshaw puller or a daily wager, his wife adds to the family income by working as a house help in the higher income group communities. With the gradual opening up of the economy, the men folks are reverting back into the economy, but chances of the house helps to regain the pre-pandemic levels of employment are slim at this juncture when infection rates are soaring.
Opportunities for career advancement for women are also at stake, which translates to less representation of women in leadership positions. It is an even bigger challenge for single-parent households headed by women. This situation compounds the already existing gender inequalities across socio-economic factors.
The lockdown measures have played a huge role in increasing household hostility towards women. There has been a spike in domestic violence. According to the UN, womenfolk are now stuck at home with people who abuse them. The problem has grown worse because shelter-in-place provisions that are normally available for women facing these conditions are shut. The UN notes that in France, reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown in March, and there have been similar increases in Europe and North America.
Indian urban middle class working couples are able to retain their employment status thanks to working from home. But here too there are discriminations wherein many couples are facing domestic strife as the husband refuses to share the burden of child and house care.
It gets worse. The deepening gender inequality can also worsen the economic effect of the pandemic. Already, the pandemic has had damaging impacts on the global economy by disrupting markets and supply chains. Many businesses shut down or scaled back production, and global unemployment is reaching unexpected levels. According to Mckinsey & Company, if steps are not taken to counter the gender-regressive effects of the pandemic, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women unemployment matched that of men. But, if action is taken now, by 2030, $13 trillion will be added to the global GDP.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
The economic effect on women will not only get worse, but it will linger on much after the pandemic. This was witnessed in some developing economies during the Ebola crisis. In Liberia, where women make up over 80 per cent of market traders, they did not only suffer higher unemployment levels than men during the crisis, but these unemployment levels persisted long after the epidemic waned, compared to that of men which returned to pre-crisis levels (UN Foundation, 2020).
The consequences in FCV communities are much worse because they are very likely to persist long after the pandemic. During the Ebola crisis in FCV countries, school closures worsened the inequality, since girls were less likely to return to school after the crisis compared to boys (United Nations, 2020).
While the governments are focussed on a vaccine and economic recovery, the societal disruptions being created by the pandemic are largely being ignored. If immediate action is not taken, all progress made so far in achieving a degree of gender equality may be undone. The greatest threat is to Fragile, Conflict, and Violence (FCV) communities. The role of economic insecurity, unpaid care burden, and domestic violence in these communities are much worse. In FCV communities, before the lockdown, access to shelter provisions, education, and employment were limited. But with the lockdown in place, the limitations are magnified, and this is causing spikes in domestic violence, sexual and reproductive health challenges, and economic insecurity. According to the UN, early and forced marriages have been on the rise, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation are resurfacing.