Women and Pandemic: Role of International Organisations

By Bhavyanshi Sinha and Manavika Srivastava

The year 2020 is significant in the field of international efforts towards bridging the gender gap. It is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. Ironically, this year also threatens to reverse the gains of years of struggle to provide women with equal rights and conditions with men, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Women were already at some disadvantage vis-a-vis male counterparts in the pre-COVID era, whether it is the social or economic arena. The lockdown imposed all over the world due to the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for worse. In India, the registered cases of domestic violence saw an 86% surge in the first four months of lockdown. This is because the lockdown had forced families to be together for very long times. Furthermore, the stress caused by the gloomy environment and loss of jobs often channels their way out through violent means. The food insecurity caused by the shutdown of supply chains had double whammy on women, for they were the last one to get their food share from a reduced pie, due to their ‘lower’ position within families. On the economic front, the news for women has not been pleasant either. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the U.S. employment numbers indicate that the majority of jobs lost in April were held by women. 

 

As the pandemic progresses, frontline health workers, of which 70% are women, will be more susceptible to the disease and lower wages too, especially in the lower-income countries. At 28 per cent, the gender pay gap in the health sector is higher than the overall gender pay gap (UN Women, 2020). This wage gap is ever-present in other, mainly informal, sectors as well, be it agriculture or contract labour. The pandemic induced lockdowns had worsened the situation for informal workers in general and women in particular. For instance, the shutdown of informal units and layoff led to migrants fleeing back to their villages in India. Women stand to lose even on the health and education front. They are often the last one within families to receive any healthcare or social security, particularly in lower-income families, while being the most vulnerable to the disease, as they are the caretakers of elderly and children. Experts also warn of fallout in girls' education, as it moves from classrooms to computers amid pandemic. Only 29% of internet users are women and most of them do not even possess smartphones.

 

Amidst the situation, the role of international organisations and NGOs has become predominant and indispensable. UN Women, for example, has come up with a Shadow Pandemic public awareness campaign to spread awareness about domestic abuse during COVID-19.’Women in law’ in Zimbabwe has been trying to increase the reach of helpline numbers for domestic violence with the help of the UN fund during this pandemic.  UN Trust Fund grant has helped set up a 24/7 helpline as well as is providing legal consultations for survivors 24/7 through email along with the help of some NGOs and lawyers in Serbia and India for is providing legal consultations for survivors 24/7 through email in Serbia and a 24-hour helpline and rehabilitative services for burn survivors with the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care in India. Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, a women’s organisation in Mexico has brought the plight of the condition of women prisoners to light because of COVID transmission in prisons.

 

The Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development provides counselling, legal and medical aid and safe homes to violence survivors. UN Women supports the Association as part of a project “Preventing Violence against Women and Girls and Delivering Essential Services to Survivors in Ethiopia” through pooled funding from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and The Netherlands. As part of the UN Spotlight Initiative programme on Safe and Fair Migration, UN Women is developing a safety plan checklist for dissemination for all women, including women migrant workers to reduce the risk of violence across the ASEAN region, helping improve the working procedures and access to help for women, including migrants in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines and providing protective equipment like masks etc. to survivors and female HIV patients in Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, CAR, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Niger and Senegal.            

 

It has been well established that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, due to already prevalent social norms and structural inequalities. Trapped in their houses, the victims only have a few sources to bridge the gap with the outside world, the first being media. Media should focus more on gender stereotypes, inequality and mental health among the others and encourage the survivors to stand up for themselves.

 

It is also evident from the case studies above that the international organisations provide a platform for women and other like-minded people to undertake collective action for their betterment. However, there are many caveats that these organisations face. Most compelling of them is lack of funds to undertake various initiatives. These institutions are dependent on voluntary contributions, which make their source of income unsustainable and capricious. Collaborating with local governments and NGOs can provide a way to pool resources, as both of them also suffer from lack of funds to develop the social infrastructure for women and the private sector is majorly driven by the profit motive. The difficulty lies in red tape these international organisations have to face since most of their area of work lies in developing and least developed countries, where bureaucracy is corrupt and omnipresent. In that case, international organisations can come together for similar projects and missions to develop a base and gain the trust of the local women. Empowering on the grass-root level can go a long way to bridge the gap. Professor Yousuf Khan’s attempt to establish Grameen Bank and develop Self Help groups is a testimony to this. 

 

Sources:

  1. As COVID-19 Situation Evolves, Health and Safety of Women and Staff Take Priority. Women for Women. https://www.womenforwomen.org/blogs/covid-19-situation-evolves-health-and-safety-women-and-staff-take-priority 

  2. COVID-19 and Essential Services Provision for Survivors of Violence Against Women and Girls. UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/brief-covid-19-and-essential-services-provision-for-survivors-of-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3834

  3. The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19. UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19 

  4. UNDP and UN Women launch COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker. UNDP. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2020/undp-and-un-womens-newly-launch-covid-19-global-gender-response-.html

  5. Women Face Rising Risk of Violence During Covid-19. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/03/women-face-rising-risk-violence-during-covid-19