The Gender Dimensions of the COVID-19 Pandemic Outbreak

By Alex Twahirwa
On 8 April 2020 at 06:42

It is too soon to tell if COVID-19 affects people’s bodies differently according to gender, but evidence shows that women and girls are especially vulnerable to global health crises.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender-neutral, as it affects men and women differently due to societal expectations, needs, and deep rooted patriarchal norms. The experience of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and Zika in Latin America is a prime example of why gender dynamics and women, in particular, must not be an afterthought in crises.

Following the different measures by various countries including Rwanda to arrest the wide spread of the virus, it is anticipated that women will bear the lion’s share of the consequences because of their predominant roles in both paid, unpaid healthcare and social assistance sectors.

Globally, women make up over 70 percent of health and social protection workers. In Rwanda, over 66 percent of health sector workers are female who currently work extra hours to save the lives but also placing their health and that of their families on the line and hence need to improve access to gender-sensitive protective equipment and hygiene products for healthcare workers and caregivers.

According to the International Labour Organization, globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. As many countries have closed schools, childcare centers and set travel restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, women in Rwanda and around the globe are faced with the burden of balancing childcare and working at home. These responsibilities are in addition to the disproportionate amount of domestic labor women already do.

This has further increased time spent on unpaid care work hence putting pressure to majority women who now have to ensure that children at home are safe including school online assignments with the full knowledge of gender digital gap in most of African countries including Rwanda.

This situation has put most vulnerable female-headed households and single mothers under considerable stress and tension to find time out of their busy schedule to care for children at home including footing extra costs like internet bills associated with online school assignments.

Experiences show that during the time of a pandemic outbreak and movement restrictions, income inflow is either compromised or completely cut off to the majority household especially those in informal economy and service sectors.

In Rwanda and other developing countries, Women are over-represented than men in the informal economy, hospitality and service industries (such as restaurants, bars, tourism, stores, hotels, and airports) with low-wage and limited access to paid sick and family leave.

These industries are expected to be hardest hit by the COVID-19- induced economic slump to contain the spread of the virus hence a need for policymakers to consider gender sensitive response plans during and after the Covid-19 shut-down period to avoid exacerbated gender inequalities.

The plan would consider among others the gender responsive plans and budget, e-commerce platforms to ensure that women retail vendors have access to their clients as well as measures to enable the movement of women small scale vendors especially those dealing in agricultural products to have easy access to markets, especially during the lockdown period.

Evidence shows that gender based violence tends to increase in times of economic hardship. Measures including movement restrictions and lockdowns to stop the spread of the novel COVI-19 are much more likely to leave victims especially women trapped in abusive relationships with their abusers in the same roof.

This calls for gender-sensitive measures that may include the awareness raising of the available GBV response services, increasing resources to GBV victim’s temporary shelters as well as providing transport facilitation to GBV victims.

As the world today is focusing on all possible measures to contain the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases, it is crucial that the responses takes into consideration the needs of both men and women.

The number of women and men who are infected by the COVID-19 pandemic should be accompanied by the analysis of the economic impacts, differential care burden, and domestic violence rates that are likely to be exacerbated by the epidemic.

Long-term Government efforts should further focus on inclusive strategies to bailout and support business enterprises. In addition, gender responsive resource reallocation, public procurement as well as private sector financial support and access to credit should be equally available to both women and men.

Alex Twahirwa
Gender Policy Analyst Expert