Covid-19 leaves women in the line of fire

Covid treats women differently (Image Source: Simon Williams/ Ekta Parishad via Wikimedia Commons)
Covid treats women differently (Image Source: Simon Williams/ Ekta Parishad via Wikimedia Commons)

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide and India continues to be in the line of fire. While cases continue to rise, India also is experiencing a crisis of another kind, that of the lockdown affecting the livelihoods of a large number of workers from the informal sector.

Shobha, working as a domestic worker in the city says, “Tai, you think the lockdown is good for us and we are on holiday? It is so difficult. We have so many members sitting for the whole day in the house, me and my daughters have to work the whole day. They tell us to handwash, where is the water? We have to get water by standing in a line. It gets so crowded, how can we maintain social distance? My husband is a daily wage labourer, and is sitting inside the house with no work. What will we eat? Some people are atleast giving us our salaries during the lockdown. But how many days can we go on like this?. Do you know how bad the situation is of migrants, especially women and girls who have come from villages to work here in the city. What will they do without food and water?

As Shobha says, while covid has indeed affected the livelihoods of a large number of people from the informal sector, especially farm migrants, these effects or impacts are gendered i.e. being experienced differently by men and women.

What is gender?

According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), gender can be defined as ‘the relations between men and women, both perceptual and material". Gender is not determined biologically based on sexual characteristics of either women or men, but is constructed socially.

Gender issues look at women and on the relationship between men and women, and the impact of roles, access to and control over resources, division of labour, interests and needs on the wellbeing  of both men and women.  Gender relations affect the security, health and well-being of individuals, households, families and the community.

Gender roles vary among different societies and cultures, classes, ages and during different periods and are influenced by a range of social, cultural, economic and ecological factors such as community organisation, household structure, access to resources, ecological conditions etc. Gender relations are influenced by the way in which any culture or society defines rights, responsibilities, and the identities and positions/status of men and women in relation to one another. 

Gendered dimensions of covid

Current evidence from the Covid-19 pandemic shows that while both women and men are affected by COVID-19, biology and gender norms are shaping the disease burden. For example, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and lung disease are more prevalent in men and are linked to behaviours such as smoking and drinking, that are associated with masculine norms that are making men vulnerable to disease. However, poor women working in the informal sector carry a different kind of burden from COVID-19 that continues to be unaccounted for while dealing with the disease. This includes:

  • Burden of unpaid work has increased on women and girls

In India, social norms and the differential roles of men and women have put the responsibility of running the household on women, which not only includes the responsibility of cooking, cleaning, collecting water for the household, but also attending and caring for the sick and the old. Studies show that Indian women do almost six hours of unpaid work daily in comparison to men who contribute just 51.8 minutes. The already overburdened women are now even more burdened as households are even more under strain. Having to wait for long hours in queues for accessing water and toilets, physical distancing carries little meaning to women who have to struggle everyday to make ends meet. The closure of schools has further exacerbated the burden of work on girls, who have to take care of their younger siblings.

  • Increasing risk of gender based violence

The already existing strain in the household can be worsened by the lockdown and lead to increased stress and anxiety, aggravate financial difficulties encouraging behaviours such as substance abuse and lead to intimate partner and other forms of domestic violence that has been already experienced in China and the US. India could be even more vulnerable and current evidence from the National Commission for Women shows that the lockdown has already led to increase in complaints of violence against women.

  • Impacts on women’s economic empowerment

The pandemic has been feared to pose a serious threat to women’s participation in economic activities related to the informal sectors, thus increasing gender gaps in livelihoods.

  • Impacts on women migrant workers

Rural women are being disproportionately affected due to the current crisis. Seema Kulkarni from Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) informs that while work has come to a complete halt in many of the states in India, most of the rural poor are struggling to make ends meet with no wages in hand. The burden on single women, widowed women is especially high as they have relied entirely on daily wages through agricultural labour, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGAs), vegetable vending or other petty trades. Women engaged in livestock have not been able to move freely to graze their cattle and neither are they able to sell their produce. Their children depend on them for survival.

The foremost concern that is staring at them is lack of food supplies for the household. Many of these single women either do not have a separate ration card in their name or it is not aadhar seeded. This makes it difficult for them to access food supplies from the PDS. They thus are forced to resort to borrowing from shopkeepers that they have to return with interest at a later date or with other kinds of favours.

  • Interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health

With public hospitals closing their OPDs, the poorest will have no access for acute or chronic ailments. In such situations, women and adolescent girls from poor families who have the least access to health care are beung feared to suffer the most. Poor access to reproductive health services during epidemics are known to exacerbate the plight of poor women who suffer because of poor access to pre- and post-natal health care, access to clean and safe delivery, treatment in complications in pregnancy, treatment of STIs, availability of contraception, and provisions for clinical management of rape.

  • Increased health risks

Women constitute as high as 70 percent of the workforce in the health care sector globally. Overwork, increased risk of catching infections, increased psychological stresses are expected to take a toll on the women calling for the need to focus attention on specific needs of women such as personal protective devices, menstrual hygiene needs and access to psychosocial support for frontline workers. 

Gender based analysis crucial to deal with the pandemic

Experts have called for the urgent need to address gender based considerations while understanding the extent of the Covid-19 crisis and including gender disaggregated demographic data while analysing information related to Covid-19. They argue that obscuring sex and gender differences while collecting demographic information on the spread, determinents,  treatment and vaccine development could result in worsening of the crisis and compromise health outcomes and that addressing the health needs of men and women equally will help societies to cope with and prevent such tragedies in the future. 

However, experts argue that focus only on ‘women’ or ‘men’ could increase the risk of homogenising the diverse experiences of men and women and reduce analysis to simplistic messaging that ‘pandemics affect women and men differently.’

An analysis of Covid-19 reduced to narrow categories of 'men' and 'women' can leave out the impact of critical factors such as age, geography, disability, race/ethnicity, migration, class, and other conditions such as housing, employment and environmental stressors on health outcomes.

A much more sophisticated analysis capturing the experiences of different groups of women, men and gender diverse people is needed that maps pathways through which gender roles, patriarchal norms and relations act and influence the spread and control of Covid-19 infections.

While Covid-19 seems to pose more risks for men as compared to women, the pandemic has brought forth the glaring inequalities among men and women in the society and shown that it continues to impact women in myriad ways. More information on the gendered impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic to understand the magnitude, factors affecting its spread and planning of control measures is the need of the hour!