Today, 11th of March marks two years since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. A pandemic that has constituted a turning point to humanity, not only because of its consequences on global health, but also because of its economic, social and political impact. It is essential to analyse the effects of the crisis from a gender perspective to ensure that recovery takes place from an effective and fair perspective.
The impact of the pandemic on women
There is clear evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have disproportionately affected women. Disaggregated data show that the impact of the pandemic on women has been different from that of men in the European Union, and has varied across Member States. For example, countries that did not integrate gender equality into their policies before the pandemic experienced a further increase in gender inequality. There is no doubt that the effects of COVID-19 are jeopardising much of the progress made over the past decade on equality.
During times of crisis – economic, health or even political ones – gender analysis tends to be considered a non-priority. However, one of the lessons we have learned from other extraordinary situations, such as the 2008 economic and financial crisis, is that failing to address the differentiated impacts on women and men, not collecting gender-disaggregated data and not acting from a gender perspective can lead to policies that eventually deepen existing inequalities and incur much higher economic costs.
The shadow pandemic: violence against women
COVID-19 has exacerbated violence against women in all its forms, including physical and psychological violence, female genital mutilation, coercive control and cyberviolence. Insufficient mechanisms and resources to support women during lockdowns led to an increase in victims of gender-based violence. A situation described by UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as the “shadow pandemic”.
In the European Union alone, a 60 % increase in emergency calls for women victims of violence by their partner or ex-partner was reported. Requests for reception for ill-treatment multiplied and many legal proceedings were interrupted. Lockdown measures made it more difficult for victims to seek help as they were in isolation with their abusers and further limited access to support services.
Similarly, we should highlight online gender-based violence, which also increased during the pandemic, and was included in the recent European Commission’s proposal for a directive to combat gender-based violence. This legislative instrument clearly addresses this dimension of gender-based violence with specific measures.
Given the different forms of violence against women, we need to equip ourselves with more effective tools to deal with all types of gender-based violence, and we must develop specific protocols for periods of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic and its impact on women: access to sexual and reproductive health and rights
Along the same lines, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights has been restricted in several European countries. The lockdown measures adopted have made access particularly difficult. The United Nations Population Fund has reported that nearly 12 million women lost access to contraception due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, leading to over 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies. Regardless of the context, full access to women’s sexual health and reproductive rights is an essential obligation, as these rights are fundamental pillars of gender equality, an integral part of human rights and sustainable development for all.
In the area of health, another specific consequence for women has been the worsening of their mental health. According to a study by the European Parliament, the pressure to find a good work-life balance has seriously undermined women’s well-being. More female workers suffer anxiety due to COVID-19 compared to their male counterparts. In addition, women bear most of the mental burden related to the organisation of care in their homes (e.g. care planning and programming, domestic tasks, etc.), putting additional pressure on them. Thus, 53 % of women compared with 37 % of men have reported that their mental health had been significantly affected by COVID-19.
The pandemic and its impact on women: women at the forefront of care work
The pandemic has also highlighted the important role women play in our societies. The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the vital importance of care work, which is mostly carried out by women both domestically and at care centre services. At the forefront of the pandemic, there were mostly women. More specifically, 76 % of healthcare professionals in the European Union are women. In households, women have also seen an increase in unpaid care due to lockdowns. This has led to a worsening of their living and working conditions. The demand for care work during this period has also forced many women to leave their paid work.
This reality should lead us to reflect on the need to establish efficient regulatory frameworks that give the weight that care tasks deserve, which facilitate reconciliation and focus on robust health systems. Progress in female employment cannot be achieved without a change in the distribution of unpaid work. In this area, particular attention should be paid to the new European Commission proposal for a directive on work-life balance, which is expected to be transposed this summer.
Learning from past and current crises
Although the COVID-19 crisis has led to major setbacks in terms of gender equality, it has also left us with important teachings: responses from public administrations should always consider a gender perspective, even during crises where this dimension may tend to be placed in the background. We are still on time to ensure that the recovery from the pandemic has an important focus on women and equality. We must use the recovery plans to advance the goal of real equality between men and women. We need to put women at the heart of the recovery: only then will we emerge stronger. This lesson should also be applied to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where women are again at the forefront of Putin’s war crimes and the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion.
Photo credit: Ariadna Creus y Àngel García (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Fuente original: Banc d’Imatges d’Infermeres.