5 ways women and girls have been the hardest hit by Covid-19

Mariam, 25 ans et mère d’un enfant, a fui son village près de Dablo, au centre-nord du Burkina Faso.

Mariam Ouedraogo, 25, was living near Dablo, in the center of Burkina Faso, when attacks by armed groups forced her to flee with her family. Together with tens of thousands of other internally displaced people, she has been staying at the Kaya site since then, where Covid-19 has made lives much more difficult. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

In March 2020, we entered the Covid-19 pandemic on foundations of gender inequality. At Oxfam we anticipated that it could likely create a backlash against women’s rights in many countries, and make things harder particularly for those women in situation of poverty and vulnerability. The crisis would tear away the gains of the past. One year on, these fears have been realized.

Covid-19 is more than just a public health or economic crisis. It is a crisis of discrimination through lived experiences of race, gender, and class. This is entirely avoidable and must be eradicated.

Faced with precarious livelihoods

In several countries, evidence shows that women, have seen their livelihoods put at great risk and that they have been most severely affected by the economic effects of Covid-19. The pandemic has disproportionately pushed them out of employment, reversing decades of progress on their participation in the labour force.

It is estimated that 47 million women and girls have been pushed into extreme poverty since the declaration of the pandemic.

Worldwide, 740 million women work in the informal economy, and during the first month of the pandemic their income fell by 60%.

Globally, women are overrepresented in the sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit, such as accommodation and food services. They are also much more likely to be in precarious and vulnerable employment. In low-income countries, 92% of women work in jobs that are informal, dangerous, or insecure and have faced the lack of access to social protection or safety nets.

Excluded from quality healthcare and education

COVID-19 has disrupted health systems and is rewinding efforts to meet needs in sexual and reproductive health. Globally, women and girls have reported having reduced access to services, which increases the risk of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and complications during pregnancies, delivery and abortion. There are global predictions of up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide due to COVID-19 and its measures.

It is estimated that maternal deaths have increased by between 8% and 39% per month in low- and middle-income countries, due to a COVID-19 related reduction of perinatal care.

Globally, 13 million more child marriages are projected to take place by 2030 due to school closures and to increased poverty resulting from the pandemic.

It has been estimated that the pandemic will also reverse the gains of the last 20 years of global progress made on girls’ education, resulting in turn in increased poverty and inequality. At least one million pregnant school-age girls risked losing their access to education in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of COVID-induced school closures. Early marriage girls stand at higher risk of intimate partner violence.

Shouldering the responsibilities of care work

Women have kept the world running during the Covid-19 response, picking up the care workload in clinics, in homes and at the workplace. Globally, women make up 70% of the health and social care workforce. They are also most of the domestic workers in the world. While these jobs are essential for the pandemic response, they have long been undervalued and poorly paid, putting these women essential workers at greater risk of being exposed to the virus themselves.

Globally, women do three-quarters of all unpaid care work and comprise of two-thirds of the paid – which contributes trillions of dollars to the global economy.

According to an Oxfam survey across five countries, 43% of women said they felt more anxious, depressed or ill because of the increased unpaid care and domestic workload.

While lockdowns have slowed the market economy, unpaid care work has gone into hyperdrive. Before Covid-19 women and girls were already spending 12.5 billion hours every day on unpaid care work. Oxfam research shows that lockdowns, illness, and school closures have increased this dramatically, mostly shouldered by single mothers, women living in poverty, and racially and ethnically discriminated groups.

A Women’s Group member in Kutupalong Camp makes a cloth facemask.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reduced household income and increased food insecurity for both Rohingya refugees and host communities living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. To improve access to income and allow households to meet their basic needs, Oxfam is providing local women’s and men’s groups with equipment and training to produce reusable masks and sanitary napkins. Photo: Mutasim Billah/Oxfam

The first to go hungry

Women play a crucial role in the global food system as producers, as workers on plantations and in processing plants. Women are also typically responsible for buying and cooking food for the family. Yet on every continent the prevalence of food insecurity is higher for women than for men.

If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by up to 17%.

In the MENA region, 40% of total expected job losses due to the pandemic are of jobs held by women.

Women make up a significant proportion of groups such as informal workers and smallholder producers that have been hit the hardest by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, they are often the most vulnerable within these groups because of systemic barriers such as discrimination in terms of land ownership and pay.

The lockdowns caused by the pandemic have only added to the food insecurity of women, more than men, given the prevalent social norms, unequal systems of food production and wage gaps. All this, together with the fact that women are often the first to skip meals or eat smaller portions, means women are often the first to go hungry.

Hit by a surge of gender-based violence

Violence against women and girls has rapidly increased in the wake of the movement restrictions linked to the pandemic. Support services for women and girls being faced with violence were hard-hit due to reduction in prevention and protection efforts and social services.

Up to 33% increase in intimate partner violence has been reported in some countries.

It is estimated that if the lockdown had continued for 6 months in July 2020, 31 million additional gender-based violence cases could be expected globally.

Gender-based violence is rooted in unequal gendered power relations. It often increases when a breakdown of law-and-order leads to impunity for the perpetrators of violence. Domestic violence may also increase during and after conflict. In conflict-affected countries, the coronavirus pandemic adds an additional level of threat and insecurity for women,girls and non-binary people linked to rising social and economic pressures and lockdown measures.

Women lead the way

Much of the global response to pandemic has not considered the gendered, intersectional impacts, with women in poverty and vulnerability, racialized, young and in reproductive age etc. having been more affected. The gap to address this can be attributed to the absence of women, in all their diversity, from decision making on the pandemic at all levels, international, national and local levels.

The pandemic has also had an impact on the civic space, limiting the ability of women rights organizations and other progressive voices to participate in this critical juncture. Authoritarianisms and sexist populisms have been reinforced during the pandemic, and progressive leaders, many of them women have suffered attacks and reduction to resources.

Out of the 14.3 million people Oxfam has reached since the start of the pandemic, 54% have been women and girls. We focus on gender in the 68 countries we work in. In 24 countries we support women’s rights organizations to advance women and girls’ rights.