Examining the effect of the pandemic on women
The spread of Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the society’s vulnerable groups – including women and girls – to various socio-economic challenges. The pandemic is expected to hamper socio-economic development as well as further widen gender gaps. Effects of this catastrophe need to be examined carefully because the measures to contain the virus have reduced women’s mobility and weakened their economic ability. The poverty rate among poor households is expected to increase; so is domestic violence.
This situation raises many questions, including how the issue is being dealt with from the gender perspective. It also creates a need to compile disaggregated data dealing with the impact of Covid-19 pandemic in terms of gender.
This includes but is not limited to: infections rates, violence, unemployment, school dropout rates and unpaid labour burden.
Currently, the website: covid.gov.pk provides statistics of Covid-19 in the country. The website has only two graphs with gender-aggregated data that show male female percentages of infections and deaths. This data is insufficient because the testing data is not disaggregated. The graphs demonstrate lower percentages of women suffering from Covid-19 as compared to men, which suggests that either not enough women are being tested for the infection or they have lower prevalence of Covid-19.
Provincial data does not have disaggregation as well to elucidate what proportion of women has been tested against men. Compiling gender-aggregated data with more characteristics and socio-economic variables will have many benefits: it will guide gender sensitive responses and will generate important information for decision-making in real time.
Pakistan currently stands at 151 out 153 on Global Gender Parity Index. It has also been lowest ranked in South Asia in terms of gender gap, far behind Bangladesh which ranks first in the region.
Women in Pakistan have not been performing well in the socio-economic mainstream. Their literacy rates, participation in the labour force, access to healthcare and financial services speak volumes of the discrimination they experience in everyday lives. Violence, particularly domestic violence, exacerbates their situation further. The gendered impact of Covid-19 is going to show in every field of public and private life of women and girls.
Although Pakistan has shown some progress in narrowing down gender gaps in terms of educational attainment and equality in wages, this progress has been very slow. The smallest gains in development are going to regress as a result of the pandemic.
Currently, the website: covid.gov.pk provides statistics of Covid-19 in the country. The website has only two graphs with gender-aggregated data that show male female percentages of infections and deaths. This data is insufficient because the testing data is not disaggregated.
School-going girls and wage-earning women, who have defied gender norms, have been hit very hard. Schools are closed during the lockdown and thus girls are expected to carry out the additional household responsibilities including childcare. This may further conform them to their assigned roles as service providers and result in further dropout from schools. This also has health consequences as mostly women and girls are responsible to look after the sick.
In the public sphere, a large section of women is working in health sector as midwives, nurses, paramedics and doctors. They are at the frontline of healthcare and at a greater risk of exposure than men. Most of them are ill prepared to perform their duties at the forefront which exposes them to a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
The pandemic poses threats to women’s livelihood given the fact that the sectors that employ a large section of women are going to be hit the hardest by the economic downturn. Such jobs do not provide women protection from crisis like pandemic. What women earn is not sufficient to save anything to face the crisis. Most of them are paid less than men.
Restricted mobility will affect women’s access to financial services and business avenues. Reduced mobility means less access to banks and micro credit which is often used for livestock management or setting a small business for a male family member. These women will need relief during and after the crisis in the form of flexible loans.
Besides, women experience an increased risk of violence during any crisis because it forces them to live with the abuser for longer periods. Socio-economic impact followed by a pandemic, stress and uncertainty of work often leads men to aggressiveness, depression and violent behaviour. This endangers women’s wellbeing.
Once the pandemic is over and schools re-open, efforts will be needed to fill the gaps widened by Covid-19 pandemic. We will need to assess the drop-out levels and how to bring those girls back to schools. This might require provision of incentives. Secondly, we need to see how the pandemic has affected women’s livelihoods, specifically home-based workers and daily wage earners. These women have suffered the most as economic activities have decelerated because of the lockdown. Therefore, a programme to financially support these women will be required to bring them back to the labour market.
Women constitute half of world’s population. Without taking into account their needs and privation, we cannot come out of the crisis soon. A gender-blind approach cannot help narrow down gender gap; rather, it will exacerbate it. Any intervention to mitigate the consequences of Covid-19 is not going to bear fruit without a gender sensitive approach. The pandemic is likely to increase pre-existing gender inequalities. Thus, immediate steps are needed to reduce threats to women and girls’ wellbeing and social development during and after the crisis. However, interventions cannot be planned without gender sensitive data. Disaggregated data and tracking in real time would provide useful knowledge about vulnerable groups and can make interventions possible. It will help to form a gender sensitive approach which is essential to address gender specific needs during the crisis, and form gender budgeting and gender sensitive policies after the pandemic is over.