The Covid-19 pandemic has wide exposed structural inequalities in the social, economic and political roles women play; multiplied vulnerabilities and puts at risk decades of progress made in terms of claiming space, voice and agency for women.
According to UN Women estimates, in fear of consequence, financial dependence and adverse partner reaction, globally less than 40 percent women report crimes of abuse against them while others go widely unreported.
The cost of violence and intimate partner violence is estimated at $1.5 trillion (2019). This implies costs incurred under healthcare for the abused, counseling services, child welfare support, access to justice, lost wages and potential productivity. Given the pandemic and limited resources, the negative impact of women’s participation in employment and domestic life increases the risk of being further pushed into the poverty line. Global discourse reflects that strides made in women’s accumulation of economic progress, human capital, space, voice and agency over the past decades is at risk of being reversed due to the pandemic.
A recently developed Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard indicates that the ongoing crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities between men and women for the long haul. While early research suggested that men are more likely to die of Covid-19, women and girls also face unique threats not only because of biological and physiological make-up but also due to their social and economic roles in the society. Simultaneously, more women than men around the world are in the front line of the healthcare profession; in some countries as high as 85-90 percent.
Pandemics and crises put tremendous pressure on systems, leaving services stretched and capacity thin. Evidence suggests that in previous crises such as Ebola, SARS, H1N1 girls did not return to school. However, boys return to school quicker than girls; a larger percentage of girls did not return either because they were pushed into the labour market or because they were burdened with additional caregiving responsibilities.
Evidence also proves that in countries with a large digital divide, boys have greater access to the internet. Domestic patriarchal traditions permit boys prioritized over girls in terms of access to learning materials – meaning girls may fall behind in terms of learning opportunities and outcomes.
As the pandemic pushes the world into recession, women stand the most affected. The magnitude of the ongoing economic crisis is unlike any other since the Great Depression of 1929. Because of where women are placed in the economic landscape, there is greater differential impact on women than on men. Female-intensive job sectors, such as teaching and education-related services, childcare, nursing and healthcare, and domestic labour are the first and hardest hit. For the large part, these jobs have been undervalued and underpaid.
Marred by wide sectoral and occupational segregation, women’s retention in the labour market is traditionally challenged by competing family priorities, structural gender workplace biases, and inflexible workplace policies towards women. The ongoing crisis has not only amplified the risk of higher unemployment but lack of income for women, and consequent less financial cushion. Around the world, as women predominate the informal labour force – jobs that necessarily do not come with fringe benefits like social protection, health insurance and unemployment compensation – it is highly unlikely that these jobs will be refilled swiftly as markets reopen, given that recovery is dependent on financially struggling employers and consumers.
Given large data sets, it is established that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women’s social and economic lives. In Pakistan, over a quarter of the women’s workforce from multiple sectors lost their jobs by May 2020. Simultaneously, economic pressures translate into domestic violence. Since the country went into lockdown on April 1, 2020, officials reported over 25 percent escalation in cases of domestic violence against women with over 3,217 cases in the last quarter across the Punjab only.
More than 51,241 cases of violence against women have been registered from January 2011 to June 2017; conviction rates remain one of the lowest in the region at 2.5 percent merely sentenced by courts. With the weak socio-economic indicators across Pakistan, the number is likely to increase as provisions of security for women and girls, access to protection service, healthcare and financial burdens heighten domestic household tensions manifold – magnified under cramped and limited confines of living conditions.
While the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 of the UN has fundamentally instituted a target area on gender equality for national and provincial legal frameworks to follow, structural inequalities, violence against women, systemic gender pay gaps, and cultural patriarchy leading to inter-generational discrimination continue to be a huge barrier to inclusive development in Pakistan.
What remains a question is how to damage control. In these challenging times it is key to ensure focus on women as frontline caregivers and that they have access to healthcare services with minimum risk of exposure. For the long term, it is essential to protect the poor and the most vulnerable women through social protection, particularly through cash transfers and devising ways on how women can keep their jobs and livelihoods.
The opportunity to rebuild through strengthening and widening social protection systems and ensuring a stronger framework of government subsidies for women is key. As policy architects think future strategies in the new emerging reality, it is central to remember that only structural safeguards to girls’ social, economic, political and cultural participation can ensure a promising future.
While the country witnesses a measured shift in its gender discourse, a new juncture curated by young millennial voices, amplified with women marchers and staunch social media influence is seen. As the struggle graduates from its foundational decades, gender-based politics appears to be shifting from state/ society to home/family topology. Ultimately blurring the patriarchal divide, the present crisis is potentially an opportunity to limit gender gap for building a resilient and equitable future.
For any recovery plan to be successful, it is essential that women be represented in strategic decision-making processes at all levels. Equally critical is to refocus policy interventions towards women-intensive sectors, and design an inclusive care economy that leaves no one behind.
The writer consults for the parliament of Pakistan on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
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