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Why we need gender perspectives in our global solutions to COVID-19

20/03/2020

By Claire Dowling, Women, Peace and Security Officer at the European Institute of Peace.

Photo: Courtesy of Burapha University

COVID-19 is indiscriminate. It has made us aware that regardless of race, sex, religion and status, we are all vulnerable to contracting the virus. Governments and populations are taking precautions to protect populations with higher fatality rates.  Although containing the virus is the key priority, measures should be considered on how to combat the ways in which COVID-19 is likely to aggravate the already existing social political and economic inequalities in society. 

We should consider the disproportionate effects COVID-19 will have on women and girls, particularly those living in crisis and conflict affected contexts. 
 

Gendered Impacts of the Coronavirus

Women form 70% of workers in the health and social sector, according to the World Health Organisation. This means that they are more exposed to the virus. In China, for example, female healthcare workers’ menstrual needs were overlooked, including insufficient access to sanitary products during prolonged working hours. The community caregiving role socially attributed to women will mean that they are baring the heaviest burden of the closure of schools and services. This is and will continue to be reinforced by the long-term economic effects of the crisis including on the gender pay-gap and the greater risk of women becoming unemployed due to the levels and industries they work in. Evidence also demonstrates that economic crisis and unemployment also leads to higher rates of domestic violence as harmful gender norms of men being considered the breadwinner leaves them disenfranchised when they are out of work. 

Quarantine itself has also left women more vulnerable to increased domestic violence. In early March in an interview with the BBC, the Director of Beijing-based women’s rights non-profit ‘Weiping’, said the organisation received three times as many inquiries from victims than they did before quarantines were in place. 
 

When Coronavirus intersects with Conflict

In recent days, the term “war” has been repeated by world leaders, health-workers and journalists in relation to COVID-19. Security has been scaled up on the streets and across borders. It begs us to ask the question how will COVID-19, and its gendered effects be further exacerbated in contexts already affected by war and conflict?

How will COVID-19 affect the families living in overcrowded refugee Camps; women’s efforts to have their perspectives heard in peace processes that are at risk due to the pandemic; the lives of women in quarantine in post-conflict societies where there had already been a spike in Intimate Partner Violence following re-integration of paramilitaries?

In 2019, the European Institute of Peace conducted a gender analysis of the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, finding that while food and medicines shortages have affected the whole population, the crisis has negatively impacted women and girls´ access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and a pushback on their rights. Due to gender norms and their role as caregivers, women also face particular challenges regarding food security. Venezuela is undergoing a large-scale quarantine to ensure the country is not destabilised further by COVID-19 and further gendered impacts are likely to occur.
 
Community Based Solutions 

Coronavirus, at least in the interim, will have to make us take new and creative steps on how to continue key peace-building work, ensuring that it is inclusive. This follows the World Health Organizations call for community-based solutions to Coronavirus. The same approach is called for in the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda as the most effective form of peacemaking is ensuring a localised and grassroots approach. There must be buy-in from the ground up, ensuring education, cultural sensitivity, and trust in the systems. 

Rather than having women bear this burden- they should be supported and considered agents of change. Their needs during COVID-19 should be taken into consideration and global efforts to address gender inequality should not be forgotten.

 EIP has developed a list of recommendations for consideration on how policy makers can address this in the peace-building space:

  • Ensure that momentum is not lost on commemorating the twentieth anniversary of UNSCR 1325 by using technology and communication tools (eg Walking for WPS, Webinars, Radio shows).
  • Consider COVID-19 as an opportunity to implement and advocate for national and localised approaches to WPS that is not centred on travel to international workshops but support of national government capacity, civil society and community-based projects. 
  • Ensure gender expertise and gender budgeting in response planning 
  • As much as is possible, in funding decisions consider the additional complications COVID-19 will have in conflict affected contexts and the particular impact women will face. 
  • Take into account the longer-term economic impact COVID-19 will have on women’s economic empowerment and target resources ensuring they do not fall further behind. 
  • Follow all of UN Womens recommendations on COVID-19 particularly of ensuring the availability of sex-disaggregated data, including on differing rates of infection, differential economic impacts, differential care burden, and incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse. 

Although COVID-19 is indiscriminate, if such measures are not taken in early response and planning the long-term negative impact on gender equality is likely to be far more difficult to address.