How does COVID weigh on gender stereotypes

By Himanshi Bahl

INTRODUCTION

As the COVID-19 pandemic was announced as a Pandemic by the WHO March 11, 2020, normalcy was thrown into turmoil. COVID-19 has become an adversity for gender equality as the pandemic has not had a homogenous impact on men and women. In every dimension, from finances and safety to health, women have always been on the back foot, facing a disadvantaged position. Therefore, the effects of COVID-19 get intensified for women by means of their sex. The consequences of the pandemic on women are likely to be felt for long afterwards and can be outlined in terms of the alterations seen in economic, social, healthcare and political domains.

SOCIETAL NORMS THAT WEIGH ON WOMEN

Though the number of men engaged in household chores and child care, that are traditionally considered as feminine, has increased significantly in the recent past, the patterns of socialisation followed in a patriarchal society have taught women to take on this typically unaccounted for load without question, seen as an extension of their personalities. The pandemic has brought this to the fore and into the public discourse.

This imbalance also persists in terms of the ‘invisible work’ and mental bulk related with parenting that is accentuated due to closure of schools and nurseries.

Even the treatment and care for COVID patients will disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women. These duties stem not only from existing structure of labour and social norms that bestow care duties to women but also considerations such as income level and rigidity of work schedule. This is due to reason that usually heterosexual relations are marked by women earning less. This translates to their work being seen as unimportant. These disparities need a comprehensive planning

Prof. SV Subramanian, who teaches population health at Harvard University highlighted that when infected, Indian women do not have a survival advantage that can be attributed to biological factors and/or social factors as gender can be a salient factor in Indian settings

Disease outbreaks increase women’s duties of caring for family members. Girls, especially those from side-lined communities and with infirmities, may be particularly impacted. Caregivers are more prone to contracting the infection as seen during the 1918 Spanish flu where more women in India, living in unhygienic and ill-ventilated houses and were relatively undernourished, died more frequently than men.

The majority of the front lines of the pandemic are women, because women make up 70% of all health and social-services staff globally. The challenges they are facing during the pandemic with their personal protection, including protective gear and even basic needs like pads and tampons while menstruating which according to some accounts, female nurses in China had difficulties finding, needs to be deliberated upon.

An often ignored aspect of gender in terms of the pandemic has been the treatment meted out to and crisis being faced by the transgender people. Stories of how they are facing societal backlash in these dire times even when going out to buy essential goods, with shopkeepers denying services. The stigma and orthodox associated with them has become an obstacle for their survival. Human Rights Watch documented stories of the sufferings of transgender people after Panama put in place a gender-based curfew for citizens that again put transgender people in a lurch.

PREVALENCE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Put in place to offset the healthcare strain brought due to COVID-19, curfews are creating this problem for women. Isolation and Quarantine has led to increased domestic violence, not only in India but worldwide.

The quarantine measures being imposed around the world have increased stress, alcohol consumption, and financial difficulties triggering violence in the homes. The unintentional repercussions have called into question the ideas of freedom and liberty. Usual opposition from the individual and the community for breach of rights has been set aside due to the pandemic situation.

These isolation measures have resulted in women and their abusers being confined together. It is not unknown that during times as these, abuser patterns come up and lead to social issues of violence becoming prominent. The British charity Women’s Aid voiced its concern in a statement “that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators, and will shut down routes to safety and support for women.” These trends have been seen in previous cases as well including the Ebola crisis in 2014, Zika in 2015 and outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu recently.

School closures affect girls’ life chances, because many are forced to drop out of education. Domestic and sexual violence rises. Because of diversion resources to the disease outbreak, women’s reproductive and maternal health is risked. A proper gender analysis of the coronavirus outbreak remains to be done by the government.

WOMEN AND ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Globally, women are particularly vulnerable economically. Women’s position in the labour market is less secure and their personal finances are weaker than men’s. As women are often employed in informal work and make up a large chunk of part-time workers, this pandemic will have a disproportionately negative impact on women due to prevailing uncertainty over when the economy will pick up. These occurrences will have profound consequences for gender equality. In economic terms, the pre-Ebola and post-Ebola income levels of men showed a quicker recovery than women as per Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University. Normalcy takes a long time to settle in after these tectonic shifts.

As after WWII, many scholars believe that a modification in cultural perceptions and societal norms is eminent now. During the war years, millions of women entered the workforce as men were off fighting battles. It led to their socio-economic upliftment and a renewed perception of gender roles. Women and their level of participation changed for the better. But then there is also an intrinsic difference between these two circumstances. Women moving on to take up male roles was viewed as emancipation but a man taking up traditionally feminine roles is seen as emasculation. The worth or value attached to women’s and men’s role is not uniform.

Stark economic shocks that are faced by girls and young women make them more likely to take on high-risk labour for their subsistence. Responses to the outbreak must protect and support young women’s economic empowerment and recognise the added load of unpaid and domestic work on women and girls.

NEED OF POLICY REFORM

Epidemics are inevitable, and the temptation to argue that gender is a side issue, a distraction from the real crisis, must be resisted. The plan of action adopted by policymakers will affect the lives of millions of women and girls in future outbreaks. Therefore, the lessons from past outbreaks such as Ebola should feed into the present-day response and policy decisions.

The coronavirus emergency has been global in scale and long-lasting in temporality. However, it also offers an opening for improvement by being the outbreak where gender and sex distinctions are documented, and taken into consideration by researchers and policymakers. For too long, politicians have assumed that child care and elderly care can be taken care of by private citizens, mostly women, effectively providing a huge subsidy to the paid economy as governments are too short-termist and reactive. This pandemic should remind us of the true scale of that distortion. Scholars suggest that emergency child-care provision, economic security for female small-business owners, and a financial stimulus paid directly to families are needed. The intensification of unequal domestic labour women will rise up in a massive backlash that forces the issue back into public consciousness. More women can become exhausted from doing everything at home and will drop out of the workforce. The gender gap at home is one of the only areas where feminists haven’t been able to make broad progress.

Gender-based violence needs to be addressed on a priority basis by the national and state government. There is an urgent requirement to include child protection in COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery plans. The policymakers should ensure that their plan of action are gender and age sensitive and include a multi-sectoral approach to problem solving. Youth organisations, especially for girls, should be securely, meaningfully and constructively involved in the progress of strategies, and plans should evaluate and monitor the risk and pervasiveness of violence.

CONCLUSION

The Beijing Platform for Action marks its 25th anniversary in 2020. It was envisioned to be a game changer for gender equality. Instead, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. There is an urgent need for all governments to recommit to the principle that women have the same right to participate in decision-making as men do and that their perspectives must be accounted for.

The necessity to care for these women and children will only increase when the situation tides over and normalcy is restored and socio-economic. Ensuring that women’s shelters are functional and economic and medical assistance is strengthened accordingly should be focussed on. Governments and civil-society groups must take a proactive methodology to tackle grievances.

To adopt a more comprehensive approach, regional frameworks as ASEAN, multilateral organizations as UN, and international financial institutions as WTO must identify that women will play a crucial part in determining the future course of action, and the measures to address the pandemic and its economic fallout should have gender perspective and gender sensitive approach.

 

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