Global pandemic through gender lens – Research Article from CAT Fellow

This Article was developed by Meri Natroshvili for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).

COVID-19 disease first appeared in December 2019, in the Hubei province, Wuhan, China. Several weeks later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the virus rapidly spread around the globe and considered the COVID-19 pandemic as a global health emergency.

According to the latest updates of WHO, the virus has spread throughout the 216 countries and more than 800 000 people have died due to this virus. However, besides the loss of lives, pandemic has definitely affected negatively on the global economy, too. In order to stop the further spread of the virus a lot of countries have decided to undergo complete lock down. Consequently, economies in those countries’ are facing the threat of unemployment and inflation. Lockdown has already influenced adversely on the GDP of each country in the major economics (OECD, 2020). Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and World Trade Organization (WTO) have declared that the above mentioned pandemic has been the  most tremendous threat to the world’s economy since the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Although, named as the “great equalizer” by some people, it seems clearly that COVID-19 pandemic is something else. It has a different socio-economic impact on different groups.

This paper is focused on one of the most marginalized groups – women and girls – and pandemic’s effects on their socio-economic conditions.

About the research

In order to find out how women and girls’ lives are changing in the face of COVID19, a limited (15) number of in-depth interviews were conducted with women from different social groups. The thematic analysis of the data identified the main challenges for women during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Limited access to sexual and reproductive health services
  • The rising number of domestic violence
  • Recession and decreased employment
  • Increased need of childcare and housework
  • Closure of schools and poverty

These finding are mostly in line with other studies conducted in this field. Each of these findings will be further discussed in the following chapters.

Differential gender implications for health outcomes

According to the WHO statistics, men are more likely to be infected by the virus; also, they are dying at nearly twice the rate as women from the disease. There could be some specific factors why COVID-19 virus has different implications for health based on the gender. That kind of pre-existing health conditions could be that men are the main parts of the smokers and carry the diseases that are related to smoke. On the other hand, women are the majority of elderly people, who are the most vulnerable groups towards the virus. Because of some pre-existing sex differences in the immunology, men may be more vulnerable towards the decease. Another risk-group could be pregnant women.

There are some habits or social standards that affect the existing statistics. Women spend more money on healthcare and are more likely to seek it than men (The World Bank, 2011). Some researches in Hong Kong showed that women wore the face mask more frequently than men (Tang and Wong, 2004).  Despite this data, the reasons why this virus has been more deadly for men are not really known.

Limited access to sexual and reproductive health services

Not only the virus, but also lockdown and the government’s response towards it, may have some negative consequences for women. Based on the past experiences, during the disease outbreak, sexual and reproductive health services might not be available for women. For instance, during the Ebola outbreak across the countries, there were quite a lot of cases, when women didn’t have access to reproductive health care services. Later on, it caused the rise of maternal mortality. In Sierra Leone more pregnant women died because of inappropriate treatment during the childbirth, rather than of the Ebola disease (Korkoyah and Wreh, 2015). In South Africa, 65% of the people who died from H1N1 were women of reproductive age and almost half of them were pregnant (Klein et al. 2010).

In the early phase of pandemic a lot of countries implemented tough lockdowns and quite a lot of the services were not available during this period. Some governments did not follow the WHO’s advice to consider sexual and reproductive health services as essential. Those services include abortion, contraception etc. UNFPA supposes that there will be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide due to this crisis, plus, deaths from unsafe abortion or from delivery complications. UN Population Fund reported the stockouts of reproductive healthcare products including medical abortion pills, contraceptives, maternal health medicines, drugs for safe childbirth, etc. in 46 countries over the last six months.

Besides, there are chances that some conservative governments will try to use this lockdown crisis to limit women’s hard-won sexual and reproductive healthcare rights. As it has already been mentioned above, contraceptives and safe abortion services were restricted for women in some countries. On the other hand, countries like The UK, Australia, Ireland simplified requirements and made telemedicine permitted for abortion during the lockdown.

The rising number of domestic violence

Early reports have revealed the rising number of domestic violence and it is one of the most crucial problems for women during the lockdown. When people are spending so much more time at home, there occurs a higher risk of violence from partners or family members and it has been widely known fact that in most cases victims of domestic violence are women. According to the UN, the cases of domestic violence have been increased by 20% during the crises. There is a higher tension in urban areas, where people living with their abusers, do not have that much space to avoid contact with them. Some countries like the UK, Australia, France allocated additional funds for victims of domestic violence (UN women, 2020).

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, the number of domestic violence victims has not been increased during the lockdown, however, some nongovernmental organizations (GYLA, IDFI) report the rising number of women asking for help and being the victims of domestic violence. During the lockdown, some NGOs held informational campaigns and citizens received messages about domestic violence and available services from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia. These messages were sent in Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani languages to outreach ethnic minorities as well.

One young girl told us her story:

  • “The hardest part of the lockdown was that we had to stay at home for the weeks. There are only two rooms in our apartment and there are four of us in the family. Before the lockdown, we had spent most of our time outside of the house, but during those days it was impossible. Me and my sister had to attend online classes at the same time. Everyone is disturbed when several people are doing different things in one room. Thus, there was a noise in our house most of the time; I think, it is the reason why we were irritated all the time. There had been conflicts in the family before the pandemic, but, at this time, we had such difficult situations almost every day.” (19 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

Recession and decreased employment

Although it seems that COVID-19 virus is deadlier in men, economic consequences of lockdown have hit women harder. In the last recessions there was a different statistics. For instance, during the 2008-2009 crisis, job losses for men were much higher than for women. One reason for this might be the fact that more women are employed in less cyclical sectors, for example: health care and education. Also, women’s employment is concentrated on the service sphere, which was mostly affected during the pandemic.

Another reason why the pandemic had a dramatic impact on female employment is that a lot of countries have decided to close schools and daycare centers. Worldwide, nearly 1.5 billion children were left out of schools (UNESCO, 25 March, 2020). Because of tough lockdown grandparent-provided childcare was restricted. That’s why a lot of families and, especially, mothers and, more especially, single mothers, had no choice; they had to take care of their kids by themselves.

  • “When daycare centers closed because of the virus, me and my husband were still working. My mother had to move to our home in order to take care of the child. Later, we were able to telecommute and my mother wanted to go back to her town, but she was not able to do so, because the city was closed. Thus, we had to live together. But, I have already realized that, without my mother’s help me and my husband could not manage to work from home and to take care of our child, at the same time” (26 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)
  • “I think the crisis was harder to overcome for single mothers. Daycare centers were closed and universities declared online teaching at the same time, so that, I had to attend the lectures from home with my child. My parents also worked from home, still they were the ones to help me in child care. The current problem is that almost everything is opened except daycare centers. My parents are back to office, the new semester at the university is going to start soon, but the kindergartens are still closed. That means that either I should attend classes with my child or I should hire a babysitter for her” (24 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

In addition, more women than men hold part-time and temporary positions. The types of jobs that were the most affected by the lockdown. And some women lost the main source of income.

  • “Because of the lockdown, the woman who I hired to help me in homework, wasn’t able to come and fulfill her duty; I know she needed the salary, so I paid her during these days, but as far as I know other people had not done the same thing and people who were working on house cleaning and similar part time jobs were left without income” (47 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

Lockdown was a huge treat for the small business owners and the self-employed workers. Women who had start-up businesses and small shops reported that they had a risk of bankruptcy. These spheres are also highly represented by women. Although Georgian government provided the self-employed people with financial aid, not all of them had an official recognition of their status, that’s why a lot of people were left without getting the financial support.

  • “I’ve made this second-hand store in the garage to earn money for the basic needs. During the lockdown we were not allowed to sell clothes. Well, I’m not saying that I had had a good income before the pandemic period but during this time I was left without any income. I borrowed money and still have not paid it back. I don’t even know how I would be able to pay my debts” (54 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)
  • “I had been working as a babysitter for years, but during the pandemic period it was impossible to continue working there.  Transport restriction was also a great problem, especially for us living in the suburbs. Not only I have lost the job, but also I was not able to prove that I was self-employed, so I have not received any kind of aid yet” (47 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

Increased need of childcare and housework

Existing gender gap and occupational segregation proves that before the pandemic women had already been in a disadvantaged position. This inequality is related to the unequal division of labor within the home. Generally, Women are providing most of the housework (cooking, cleaning, etc.) and childcare; this effects on their performance in the labor market. Moreover, researches show that the gender pay gap is closely related to child birth (Kleven, Landais and Sogaard, 2019. Gallen, 2018). After the lockdown, UN Women Georgia conducted a research. They asked men how housework was divided at their homes. 86% of these men said that at their homes women were providing washing and cleaning and 74% of them said that women were providing cooking. Only 7% of men said that they equally shared housework (such as washing and cleaning) with their partners and 17% of them said the same thing about cooking.

  • “Despite the fact that both of us – me and my husband are working, I am in charge of doing house-work. And we continued to do so during the pandemic, so nothing really changed for me considering this perspective.” (27 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)
  • “I’m mainly occupied with housework and childcare, to be honest, I don’t even have time to find a part-time job. During the pandemic my husband worked from home, for me, it had positive outcomes, on the one hand there was less work to do, because I didn’t need to wash his clothes daily; on the other hand, he had more free time to help me. He was definitely more involved in housework and childcare than rather he used to before” (31 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

In Georgia women spend 45 hours a week doing housework, compared to 15 hours in men (UN Women Georgia, 2020). During the lockdown quite a lot people were able to telecommute, but working from home was harder for women than for men. According to the UN Women Georgia, during the lockdown, apart from the work, men were mainly occupied with managing the housework, shopping, playing with kids and pets while women were occupied with cooking, cleaning and childcare. Organization “Sokhumi” conducted the research in some towns of the Western Georgia during the pandemic; almost 70% of respondents believed that working class women’s responsibilities were increased during the lockdown, mainly because of the fact that they were working from home and were doing housework at the same time.

  • “Working from home is harder when you have little children. I remember they have interrupted several video calls just because they wanted to play with me. You can’t even explain to them that you are working from home and can’t spend time with them. It’s also hard to concentrate on work when your child is crying in the next room” (29 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)
  • “I don’t think that lockdown had any effect on the division of labor within the homes. It’s my mother who mainly cooks, cleans and does some other housework. During the lockdown I helped her but, still, this stuff was under her responsibility. I don’t think that we were doing more housework during the pandemic than we used to before” (19 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)
  • “Actually, it’s me who does most of the housework but if we consider the fact that I don’t have a job, unlike from my husband, I think we have divided work fairly. During the lockdown he was able to telecommute and had more free time, so he helped me, mainly, in childcare. I’d be glad if in the future he has a possibility to work from home” (31 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

Closure of schools and poverty

During the recent crisis, 191 countries had closed the schools and 1.5 billion pupils were left out of schools (UNESCO, 2020). A lot of countries continued online studying using different apps in the process. Sometimes lessons were broadcast through TV channels or through radio. Lack of access at homes to the internet, television or radio has been a huge problem during this process. Worldwide, nearly 3.5 billion people are completely offline, mainly, in the developing countries (World Wide Web Foundation, 2020). According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia (2019), nearly 20% of families do not have any access to the internet. 85% of households in cities and towns and 70% of families in the villages are connected to the internet. The recent research conducted by Sokhumi Fund shows that a lot of pupils in the towns of the Western Georgia are not able to participate completely in the e-learning process. Respondents complained about the lack of PCs, laptops, the low quality of the internet, etc. It means that not everyone can afford the e-learning process and even if it was affordable for everyone, there is a huge difference between real life and online education.

Closing of schools also means the loss of social contacts, isolation from friends, teachers and supportive peers, inability to build a network for future plans, etc. In some cases, it also means that girls won’t receive information about their sexual and reproductive health. Losing that kind of supportive system when there is a rising number of domestic violence could be a treat for young girls. Lockdown would have a negative psychological and economic effect on everyone, but, mostly, for those who have already been vulnerable. This damage may never recover.

  • “The E-learning process was boring for me as well as for my 15 years old sister. I think that the quality of education was mostly lost during this process. I attended university classes and the system mainly functioned well, but my sister’s classes were complete mess. There were technical problems all the time and misunderstandings, pupils benefited from those technical problems, I think sometimes they intentionally caused these problems. But, the main problem was that we attended those classes from the same room, that caused noise and irritation during the process” (19 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

The E-learning process was not a pleasant one for teachers who taught online during the lockdown period; most of them are women and they had to work and take care of the household, at the same time. Besides, the older generation is not very familiar with technologies. Not only aren’t they familiar but some of them do not own a PC or laptop, do not have access to the internet. So, for some teachers, adjusting the new reality was a problem.

  • “Teaching online was harder at the beginning, than I had been used to it before. Of course, I prefer real life classes. On the one hand, there were a lot of technical problems; on the other hand, pupils can research information during the classes and pretend that they knew it. It’s hard to control cheating. Besides, education is not only studying some facts and information, pupils need to have friends, live communication, debates, etc. Those things were restricted during the quarantine. […] Combining housework, family life and e-learning process was another hard task. I had to talk loudly during the hours and I know I disturbed my family members. The process was more tiresome than it is in the classrooms, generally. So, I had less time for housework. Family members were waiting for me to finish the classes and cook” (43 years old woman, Georgia, 2020)

Poverty is another challenge for women. Almost 25 million jobs have been lost because of pandemic, as it has already been mentioned above, this recession mainly affected women. We know from past experiences that parents and girls themselves use early marriage even child marriage as a coping mechanism for poverty and hunger. In other cases, women and young girls could be forced to take on high risk work, for example to sell their bodies. If the economic downturn continues families may no longer be able to afford education for their children, especially for their girls. So, poverty can increase child labor and put girls and women at the risk of sexual exploitation. According to the recent research, made by the Sokhumi Fund, 67% of respondents indicated that the lockdown was a huge treat for their income and 47% said that they have lost jobs and income because of the pandemic. In those cases, the government should ensure that the most vulnerable groups will be economically empowered. Financial support for single mothers and women living in poverty could have a positive impact.

The effect of COVID-19 pandemic on gender norms

The process so far shows that the lockdown had disproportionately negative consequences for women. Unlike from the past recessions, this downturn negatively affected the sectors where women make up most fraction of the workforce. Women were also affected by the increase in childcare needs, caused by closure of schools and daycare centers. The situation was much more dramatic for the single mothers. Besides these economic factors, there was a rising number of domestic violence, which made lockdown even more unbearable for women.

Nevertheless, some researchers believe that there are some counteractive factors that could provide gender equality. Such the first factor is that many businesses adopted telecommuting options during the lockdown. It’s logical that they will use this method more frequently in the future. Working from home might be beneficiary for mothers, who are responsible for providing childcare, have to spend their time with children, etc. Despite the fact that combining work and childcare is a really hard thing to do, it would be mothers more than father’s who will benefit from these changes.

Another factor is that childcare needs have increased for both parents, sometimes, women work in critical positions, sometimes they are not able to telecommute, but their husbands work from home or do not work at all, and, because of this, husbands became responsible for childcare. Some fathers have already shouldered additional childcare responsibilities and the fact that they are staying at home instead of the workplace, means that they spend more time with their children. Even if we consider the fact that women do most of the childcare and housework, fathers still have experienced the increase of their childcare hours, than they used to before.

Is there any chance that the described process will push existing social norms towards more gender equality? Here we can remember the last major shock in the labor market, The World War II. During the war, a huge number of women entered the labor force, in the absence of men someone had to fill the workforce. Women took positions in factories, markets and replaced men in nearly every position. Before the war, married women had a very low labor force participation rate and during this period it was believed that women were replacing men temporarily.  A lot of literature, as well as facts prove that The World War II had a long-lasting effect on female employment (Acemoglu, Autor, and Lyle, 2004. Goldin and Olivetti, 2013. Doepke, Hazan, and Maoz, 2015)

We can use The World War II as an example to prove that temporary changes in gender roles and norms have a long-lasting effect. During the lockdown many fathers faced increased need of childcare. Although those changes are considered to be temporary, looking at the past experiences we might expect that this shift will encourage the change of social norms and increase men’s future participation in childcare.

Although, there might be some additional counteractive factors that could encourage gender equality; we should not forget that the economic consequences of the lockdown have tremendously hit women rather than men. Also, there will be some other consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that will affect disproportionately on women and these consequences are outside of the scope of this paper. There are some related data that are not accessible at this moment. Thus, the impact of the pandemic on gender equality/inequality remains to be seen obviously. The only thing that is certain by now is that the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender blind and the response to it should not be either.

The article is prepared by Meri Natroshvili within the context of her work for the Community Action Training (CAT) program, created by CTC. The program is supported by Bread for the World and Erasmus+ (EACEA)

The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of CTC, Bread for the World and Erasmus+. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author.


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