The invasive nature of the Covid-19 pandemic does not rest solely on biological factors: it has abruptly influenced vital areas of our existence, such as education, employment, and family life. Although the virus itself can spread equally amongst individuals, women worldwide have experienced more social and economic disadvantages as a result of the pandemic than their male counterparts, leading to a deepening of a persisting social issue, namely gender inequality.

Household duties and careers

Gender equality is not a straight-forward, transparent result that can be achieved in the blink of an eye: it is the sum of multiple factors of our daily activities and how they influence other life areas. It is a translation of seemingly unimportant details of our existence into its broader spectrum. However, this time, a pandemic, in its already devastating form, is also the exponent of regressing gender equality, losing years of evolution in this direction.

Working remotely has become the norm in the past few months. Although most people, at the beginning of the pandemic, counted upon spending as much time on childcare and domestic work as their partner, the result was not proportionate to the expectations. According to a survey conducted in the U.S and Europe, working women spend 15 hours more on unpaid labor than men. When it comes solely to children, two-thirds of the extra time spent on daycare and supervision is done by women alone. These results are amplified during the pandemic, as fewer people can depend on help from outside to look after their children. This asymmetry can have long-term effects on family life, as well as women’s participation in labor.

The pandemic is the cherry on top for an already flawed economic fundament. Women generally earn less than men and are usually more active in sectors that offer less social protection access. Women are more likely to work part-time, also due to household responsibilities. Adding the pandemic to the equation, the domestic workload increases, and those who have less secure jobs within a family are deemed more suitable to take on the extra responsibilities that have arisen in the household. Nonetheless, women’s over-representation in employment sectors that were the hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality and tourism, is consequently turning into higher rates of unemployment among women than men. In the United States of America alone, 11.5 million women lost their jobs between February and May, compared to 9 million men. Those coming from more vulnerable groups, such as migrants and the youth, are experiencing even more job cuts and lay-offs. This vicious circle greatly restricts women’s economic emancipation and security in the long run.

Women who have had the means to continue juggling family life and full-time high-earning jobs are experiencing an escalating amount of stress as well. For some of them, this stress has become unbearable and unsustainable, leading to a switch to part-time jobs or even to leaving their jobs. This is another proof that the superfluous demand in domestic affairs and economic insecurities are further deepening and perpetuating inequalities in households.

Gender-based violence and health

Covid-19 has created a web of issues that has entangled already-existing fundamental and universal problems. Because women have less access to education worldwide, they are also less likely to be in control over their lives than men. Before the pandemic, one in three women were prone to experiencing violence during their lifetimes. This risk is heightened by quarantine measures that have trapped some of them at home with their abuser. This also led to an overload in the healthcare system and justice services. Helplines in countries such as Singapore and Cyprus have witnessed an increase in violence-related calls during the pandemic of 30 percent, as violence has quickly intensified during the pandemic. Domestic violence had already been a massive human right violation before Covid-19, yet the numbers still grow and are impacting the girls’ and women’s wellbeing and their participation in society and economy. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is also deteriorating girls’ and women’s health. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, women had restricted access to health information and services. The pandemic is now straining the healthcare system, deprioritizing sexual and reproductive health, which can only have long-term devastating consequences. Some girls and women can also lose their lives due to the lack of access to these services, which are, most of the time, vital. Worldwide, pregnancy-related complications, already one of the main killers of girls aged 15 to 19, have intensified during the lockdown. In just six months, 7 million unintended pregnancies put thousands of lives of young girls at risk. Moreover, with schools closing and traditional gender roles still existent nowadays, girls are limited to house chores, diminishing their likelihood of going back to school. Some families even marry their daughters at a young age to survive the pandemic.

The data gap and lack of authority support in this matter are worrying and can lead to dramatic consequences. In Russia, for instance, the number of domestic violence cases has decreased by 9 percent from a year earlier, despite an increasing number of calls to domestic abuse hotlines. From March to April of this year alone, the number of calls has been mounted by 7 thousand. The government and police, however, still render domestic violence a private affair. In Mexico, the emergency decree implied the government defunding the Houses for Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Women (CAMIs). CAMIs provided culturally sensitive support for those who have experienced domestic violence and reproductive health care support. In April, 11 women were killed every day, while in May, Mexico’s National Shelter Network had an 80 percent reported increase in calls for help.

In Malawi, 46% of girls marry while underaged, and 9% marry before turning 15 years old. During the pandemic, the number of child marriages elevated, as parents believe they can relieve the burdens of such critical times. The loss of income of the families in Malawi also puts young girls at risk for sexual exploitation and abuse.

Education

Just like a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon, so do a multitude of seemingly unimportant factors contribute to the tragedy of gender inequality. Girls in poorer countries miss out on education due to decreased access to technology compared to their male counterparts. This is mainly due to barriers that prevent girls from speaking freely online and a lack of digital know-how. Girls are also the first to be pulled out of school to take care of their younger siblings and work.

The pandemic has caused 743 million girls to miss out on their education, while 10 million secondary school-aged girls are predicted not even to be able to finish their education. This happens when girls are half as likely to attend middle school as boys, to begin with. Considering that the schools are closing, it is even harder to reach out to girls in need, especially in rural areas. It is now harder for girls to seek the support their welfare depends upon. The distance and costs of getting to school every day were already contributing factors to girls dropping out of school or being pulled out of it. Nowadays, these impediments to education are intensified by the pandemic’s economic burdens, with the girls living in a refugee context being the most at risk.

What’s next?

Gender equality had been a work in progress even before the pandemic. However, it is clear how Covid-19 deepens these structural inequalities by affecting women’s careers and household dynamics, not to mention health and bodily integrity, inevitably leading to a regression in gender equality. The pandemic is one of the last domino pieces of societal and economic issues, its fall having potentially devastating effects.

Various organizations have already taken the initiative in lessening the impacts of the dire times the world is experiencing. For instance, Plan International is trying to adapt its current program to address the outbreak’s impact by implementing remote approaches. Women’s organizations and communities still need to be strongly supported to help women and girls worldwide in the long run. Violence against women can be diminished if justice services are given more attention, if not priority. The private sector is also in power to share information and encourage shared responsibilities at home.

This issue is a spectrum of multiple other problems, which renders the situation complex and entangled with our daily lives. The economic and emotional shocks experienced by all of us is then topped by all the struggles mentioned above and tragedies experienced by women and girls across the globe. Our values are challenged, so it is crucial to be a part of the recovery process by opposing the regression of gender equality as much as our capacities allow.