2020 was expected to be the feminist super year - the anniversaries of the UN Resolution on "Women, Peace, and Security" and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action were supposed to be celebrated, and discussions about the lack of their implementation to be held. Instead, this became the year that, according to UN Women, would destroy 25 years of feminist achievements.
The Economic Impact: Loss of Paid Work and Time Poverty
Although the pandemic is not over, the current economic losses worldwide are predicted to evolve into a long-term economic recession, primarily to the detriment of women. This is due to the fact that 40% of all working women – more than 500 million women worldwide – are working in sectors that were hit the hardest during the lockdown measures, such as manufacturing, tourism, and the hospitality industry. Almost 60% of all women are working in the informal sector where they lack safeguards and social security protection. In addition, women own a large share of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which limits their access to public funds. Women’s income decreased up to 60% during the first lockdown months, and 50 million more women are estimated to live under the poverty line. The existing wage gap between women and men and low-income positions are particularly visible in poorer countries where relative poverty in the informal sector has increased by more than half (56%), in contrast to the 20% in rich countries. Numerous women have been forced into the domestic sphere once again, due to lockdown measures and care work, which have made it extremely difficult for them to balance work and caregiving responsibilities such as childcare.
Women have always done the vast majority of unpaid care work in the households - for children, the elderly, the family and the community. Unpaid care work is the issue where gender inequality becomes evident the most. It is the area that leads to pay and pension gaps and creates a severe "time poverty" phenomenon for women and girls. Women have always borne the brunt of unpaid care, reproductive and communal work. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this gap enormously. Since women and girls worldwide contribute three times as much as men and boys to care, domestic and reproductive work, almost 10% of women thought about reducing their working hours, whereas only 2% of men did. As a result, although women represent almost 40% of the global workforce, they account for more than 50% of job losses. In addition, women who have lost or left their work due to the pandemic, will have a harder time returning to work, being hired again, getting equal pay or a chance at job applications. Globally, even before the pandemic hit, more than 40% of women at their working age said they were unable to do paid work because of their unpaid care and domestic work responsibilities – compared to 6% of men. These aforementioned observations and studies have shown that the gender-based inequalities, which had been generated by the current economic patriarchal model, were widened and deepened during the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, the COVID-19 crisis has to be acknowledged as a gendered crisis with the risk of re-traditionalization, reinforced by the political, economic and social structures.
The Rise of Gender-Based Violence
As the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown measures have increased the mental load of people worldwide, statistics show, similar to previous pandemics, a surge in gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence. The year before the pandemic, almost 250 million women and girls worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Since the pandemic, violence against women and girls has intensified due to an increase of substance abuse and the feeling of emasculation because of job losses. As men feel pressure in the face of economic hardship and the inability to work, tensions and conflict in the household can lead to violence, in addition to the negative effects of isolation with abusers, cramped living spaces, movement restrictions, and deserted public places. Domestic workers, older women, women with disabilities, women without access to technology, women working from home, women facing discrimination or inequalities, and women facing housing precarity are more prone to become victims of gender-based violence. Due to lockdown and moving restrictions, women face challenges to find safe spaces and leave their partners. The economic implications of COVID-19 that primarily affected women have created a dependence on men. In addition, survivors have limited access to information and support services, in particular because numerous countries have diverted their response from violence against women to COVID-19 relief. There are fewer police interventions, while numerous courts were closed, as well as shelters and safe places, which were not accessible for women and girls. As women are less likely to have power in decision making around the outbreak than men, their general needs and health, including sexual and reproductive health, will go unmet. In fact, numerous states have used discriminatory laws to aggravate or prohibit procedures concerning women’s sexual and reproductive health, under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions.
But violence against women is not only about “discrimination”. It also raises awareness of core persistent patriarchal norms and derogatory attitudes against women, and increasingly against the LGBTIQ community. The consequences of these negative values run deeper than inequality: it is a misogyny that crystallizes in increasing rates of femicides, it ends up in so-called “honour” killings and “marry-your-rapist-laws”, and sexualized violence is a weapon of war.
Already before COVID-19 has started the increasing digitalisation has led to an ongoing increase of gender-based violence. Now, under the pandemic’s conditions and associated with the huge shift of many professional and communicating activities, of individual and collective contacts and networking to virtual meeting places, gender-based violence has increased also here. Taking the example of South Korea, Human Rights Watch has documented how a combination of rapid technological advances and deep gender inequality is accelerating the spread of online-gender-based violence, while “governments drag their feet”, awareness and anti-discrimination regulations to stop this global trend of digitalized violence are lacking.
The Consequences for the LGBTIQ Community
The COVID-19 crisis has affected numerous marginalized groups such as the LGBTIQ community. Individuals not accepted by their families, or those who were not outed, were often forced to share the same space during the lockdowns. ILGA Europe reports that this resulted in increased mental health issues and emotional or physical abuse. The LGBTIQ community was, after decades of fight for their human rights, confined to their homes and silenced once again. Rainbow families had difficulties to formalize their relationships and documents such as birth certificates and gender recognition certificates. There were also difficulties to access health services as the LGBTIQ community was de-prioritized due to the strains on health services created by COVID-19. Important health services such as therapies, gender reassignment surgeries, and medical support in general were not provided. UNAIDS states that almost 50% of their LGBTIQ survey participants faced economic difficulties, with a quarter unable to meet their basic needs such as regular meals. In addition to these challenges, LGBTIQ rights are attacked in the current crisis, while the LGBTIQ community is also scapegoated by religious leaders and authoritarian regimes (e.g. in South Korea, South Africa, Hungary). As OutRight Action International states, “repression, exclusion, and criminalization are all on the rise in countries prone to authoritarianism and regressive gender ideologies, with some states using the emergency situation to clamp down specifically on LGBTIQ people”. In addition, homosexuality is still criminalized in at least 70 countries around the world, and LGBTIQ individuals struggle with hostility, discrimination, violence, and defenselessness. This also means that numerous LGBTIQ individuals have not yet been able to come out and that they have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity – an oppressive silence that has devastated under the pandemic’s restrictions.
Counter-Strategies and Resistance
Despite all of the aforementioned trends and issues, women and the LGBTIQ community find strength and resilience in themselves and show their resistance. The inequalities seem to be so big and unfair, that remaining a spectator is not an option. This is visible from the numerous movements that occurred in 2020. In the middle of the pandemic, George Floyd was killed in a violent arrest in the US. This sparked a worldwide wave of protests against racism that continued into 2021 and initiated discussions about police violence and racial profiling. These protests did not go under despite lockdowns and curfews, and people demonstrated online and offline. Although women's rights and LGBTIQ organizations have lost their funding due to the pandemic, large NGOs have also provided institutional support to smaller NGOs to keep them afloat. In Poland, shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, a new group called Abortion Without Borders was founded to fight the oppressive abortion laws in the country. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to an increase in the number of domestic violence cases, an app was developed that makes it easier to report cases of domestic violence to organizations. The Pride Day was held virtually in numerous countries in 2020 and queer experiences with the pandemic were documented under the hashtag #OutSpoken. Even before the pandemic, groups of intersectional feminists set out to apply the concept of feminist leadership culture to non-profit organizations. During the pandemic, it became all the more urgent to take a closer look at power structures and uncover injustices. The pandemic made it clear that countries with more women in decision-making positions, as measured by the Council on Foreign Relations Women's Power Index, were more likely to deliver effective COVID-19 reactions that considered also women and girls in the response mechanisms. It showed that the higher a country's index score was, the more likely it was to develop a gender-oriented response. Nevertheless, on average only 24% of women sat at the table in such bodies. And then, there is also the fact that some countries took advantage of the pandemic for their already anti-feminist policies - they restricted women’s rights further. This was for example the case in Texas, where abortions were completely banned under the guise of pandemic politics, and in Hungary, where in the summer of 2020 the right-wing government in Hungary passed a law which made a change of gender entry impossible. Amnesty International also reported on 46 governments that acted against human rights defenders or denied them any protection during the pandemic. These occurrences only highlight the importance of addressing structural inequalities. If human rights are not protected, the voices of the marginalized are not heard and their needs are not met, then injustices become more emphasized in times of conflicts and of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race, as Oxfam concludes in its important analysis of the gendered impacts the “inequality virus” has had so far on all people that are structurally discriminated: women, LGBTIQ people, people in poverty, Black and Indigenous people(s). Thus, we want to underline the need for comprehensive transformative policies that put gender inequalities and all forms of gender-based discrimination at the center of all building back better initiatives, in order to create a world based on equity, regardless of gender, gender identity, race and sexual orientation.
Sources used and links for further reading:
On COVID-19 – the pandemic and gendered impacts:
Oxfam (2021): The Inequality Virus (www.oxfam.de/system/files/documents/the_inequality_virus_-_english_full_report_-_embargoed_00_01_gmt_25_january_2021.pdf)
Joint statement by the Special Rapporteur and the EDVAW Platform of Women’s Rights Mechanisms on Covid-19 and the Increase in Violence and Discrimination Against Women:
UN organisations on the impacts of COVID from a gender perspective:
UN Women (explainer): https://interactive.unwomen.org/multimedia/explainer/covid19/en/index.html
On impacts on international LGBTIQ communities:
ILGA, Europe: https://ilga-europe.org/covid19
Outright International: https://outrightinternational.org/outrights-covid-response
On economic and political inequality:
On gender-based violence and digitalisation:
On gender-based violence against women & girls:
Shalini Mittal and Tushar Singh: Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mini-Review:
Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response
This article was first published by HBS.