Gender and coronavirus: why women are bearing the brunt of COVID-19

Gender norms often influence what is expected of us in our daily lives. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no different – gender is determining the ways in which both men and women are impacted by the coronavirus.  

According to current statistics, men are faring worse than women when it comes to fatalities from the new coronavirus. In Italy, men are dying at higher rates than women. Men in China and South Korea also suffered more fatalities. The question is: why?

Male vulnerability during this pandemic can be linked to gender as men across the world are more likely engage in high risk behaviors such as smoking cigarettes. Smoking damages the lungs and makes smokers more susceptible to breathing difficulties and complications when it comes to fighting COVID-19. In addition, men in both Italy and China were more likely to have underlying health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes which can also increase the severity of COVID-19.

Woman in blue face mask - primary caregivers are often women placing them at higher risk than others during pandemics

For women, the negative outcomes of this pandemic may be less visible but just as devastating.  

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe and case numbers continue to climb, the emerging reality for women and girls is that gendered norms and expectations can increase their risk of mental distress, financial insecurity, illness and harm.

1. Gender and the burden of unpaid care

Women and girls already do most of the world’s unpaid care work. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), globally, women perform 76% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three-times as much as men.

The gender role of women as caregivers who are primarily responsible for cleaning, cooking and caring for children, elders, or the sick, will no doubt impact women across the globe as schools close indefinitely and family members become ill. This will not only increase their existing burden of work, but also expose them to contracting the virus.  

In addition, the mass shutdowns of childcare centers and schools, can leave many women – and especially single mothers – with no choice but to either take time off or work from home. However, those who are poor, working in service jobs that cannot be done from home, and those without paid leave are especially vulnerable to increased mental distress and economic insecurity, as their care work burden remains the same.

Mother with daughter and how women and girls are impacted by pandemics

2. Gender and income inequality

Women already experience a gender pay gap where they tend to make less than men. They are also more likely be employed in part-time or precarious jobs that are currently undergoing mass layoffs such as flight attendants, retail, customer service and childcare workers.

In fact, women make up the majority of Canada’s minimum-wage workers and part-time workers. Worldwide, women are also more likely than men to be employed part-time.

Work interruptions due to illness or being laid off will highly impact women’s quality of life, forcing them to make tough choices for themselves and their children.  This will be especially critical in the developing world where women are already more likely to live in poverty.

Poverty is a major stressor and a key driver of child exploitation including child labour and child marriage. In addition, poverty threatens overall family health, wellness and nutrition. When resources are scarce at home, their distribution amongst families can be heavily gender biased.

3. Gender-based violence

We’re all being told to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But what happens when home isn’t a safe space?

The stats on gender-based violence are grim. The UN reports that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. Another WHO report on violence against women also found that almost 1 in 3 women globally have been physically or sexually abused in their lifetime. 

Woman standing in shadow - domestic and sexual violence increases after disasters

Further research suggests intimate partner violence often escalates during crises: A Red Cross report found both domestic and sexual violence increase after disasters, while a Chinese anti-domestic violence nonprofit reported a spike in abuse cases related to coronavirus quarantines.

Confinement to the home along with other stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic increases tensions that can promote violence and harm to many women and girls who are already at risk.

Also, as primary caregivers, women and girls often walk for miles to source water, exposing them to violence and harassment. This reality can be further exacerbated as the need for water to sanitize and clean increases.

4. Gender and access to healthcare

Around the world, often due to the lower literacy or educational status of women and girls relative to men and boys, their access to critical health information is limited. In addition, women and girls often have limited decision-making power and increased barriers to seeking healthcare.

As the pandemic progresses, it will deeply impact already impoverished families who will need to make critical decisions about who receives care, and too often, the lower social status and value of women and girls may prevent them from accessing care. This is further complicated by the invariable stigma families and communities face dealing with any outbreak where more often than not female family members are hidden compared to men and boys.  

5. Health workers on the front-line

Around the world, women make up a majority of health care workers, almost 70 percent according to WHO, and most of them occupy nursing roles — on the front-lines of efforts to combat and contain outbreaks of the coronavirus.  

It’s a given that health workers will be more exposed to COVID-19. However, we have yet to see the true impact this will have on women – how will their position at the forefront of this pandemic alter the statistics around female infection and fatality rates across the globe?

Supporting women and girls during crises

Plan International is active in over 75 countries and supports thousands of disadvantaged communities through a network of nearly 10,000 staff.

Our experience shows girls and young women are particularly hard hit in health emergencies, and that’s why we’re calling on governments to consider girls, women and other vulnerable groups as they respond to the spread of COVID-19.

This global pandemic will hit harder in poorer countries where access to critical infrastructure such as healthcare, clean water and social insurance are limited. We are also concerned about the long-term social and economic impacts of the coronavirus, especially for women and girls.

Plan International is responding to COVID-19

Children, especially girls, and whole communities would be affected by any stoppages in our work and we are continuously assessing how we can continue our programs to protect human rights and best support those who are most vulnerable in low, medium, and high transmission areas.  

If you want to learn more about how Plan International is responding to the coronavirus pandemic both locally and globally, then visit our COVID-19 FAQs

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