Culture In Depth Society, 17/04/2020

How Pandemic Affects Gender Equality

During the pandemic of COVID-19, many people have been forced to stay in self-isolation. Kindergartens and schools are being quarantined, and childcare completely falls on parents’ shoulders. Previous pandemic outbreaks resulted in rising gender inequality. This situation pulls back many families into “the housewife and wage-earner” model.

Nowadays, many people are trying to take their forced self-isolation with humor. They consider one might take advantage of using his or her free time for brilliant achievements and discoveries. Going back in the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” and Isaac Newton developed the theory of optics while England was ravaged by the plague.

According to a British journalist Helen Lewis, it’s rarely mentioned that neither of them had child-care responsibilities. Shakespeare spent most of his career in London, where the theaters were, while his family lived in Stratford-upon-Avon. During the plague of 1606, the playwright was lucky to be spared from the epidemic and his wife and two adult daughters stayed safely in the Warwickshire countryside. Newton, meanwhile, never married or had children. He saw out the Great Plague of 1665–1666 in his family’s estate in the east of England and spent most of his adult life as a fellow at Cambridge University, where his meals and housekeeping were provided by the college.

What have people learned from the history of the previous pandemic which affected humankind in the 21st century?

According to “A Gendered Human Rights Analysis of Ebola and Zika: Locating Gender in Global Health Emergencies” research, the Western community has not learned from the history of recent epidemics: the Ebola crisis in three African countries in 2014; Zika in 2015–2016; and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu. Researchers have found that this had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality.

According to Julia Smith, a health-policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, everybody’s income was affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.

The British journalist Helen Lewis adds that other lessons from the Ebola epidemic were just obvious. School closures affected girls’ life chances because many dropped out of education. A rise in teenage-pregnancy rates exacerbated this trend. Domestic and sexual violence rose. And more women died in childbirth because resources were diverted elsewhere. “There’s a distortion of health systems, everything goes towards the outbreak,” said Clare Wenham, who traveled to West Africa as a researcher during the Ebola crisis. “Things that aren’t priorities get canceled. That can have an effect on maternal mortality, or access to contraception.”

“The most devastating experience was in Sierra Leone,” continues Helen Lewis, “from 2013 to 2016, more women died from childbirth complications than Ebola itself.”

Are there sex differences in mortality and vulnerability to the coronavirus?

According to “COVID-19: Gendered Impacts of the Outbreak” research, created by Clare Wenham, Julia Smith and Rosemary Morgan, despite sex-disaggregated data for COVID-19 show equal numbers of cases between men and women so far, there seem to be sex differences in mortality and vulnerability to the disease. Emerging evidence suggests that more men than women are dying, potentially due to sex-based immunological or gendered differences, such as patterns and prevalence of smoking. However, current sex-disaggregated data are incomplete, cautioning against early assumptions. Simultaneously, the State Council Information Office in China notes that more than 90 percent of health-care workers in Hubei province are women, highlighting the risk that mainly female health workers face.

The research states that women will be more affected in places with more female health workers. An analysis of 104 countries shows that women form 67 percent of the health workforce.

In China, “an estimated 3,000 healthcare workers have been infected and at least 22 have died.” As the pandemic spreads, the toll on women health workers will likely be significant.

Who treats and looks after sick people in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, 82 percent of the total number of employees in the health sector are women. Most of them work as therapists, family doctors, including the staff of infectious hospitals.

The Law of Ukraine “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine aimed at Preventing the Occurrence and Spread of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19),” adopted on March 17, 2020, introduced additional supplementary payments for medical and other workers directly engaged in elimination of disease among people with coronavirus, up to 200 percent of salary for the period of implementation of measures. This is an appropriate step to support health professionals, the majority of whom are women.

Mostly women look after elderly and sick family members in Ukraine, so it will supposedly create another challenge for their daily lives.

Therefore, women may be at a greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 through professional contact with patients and nursing them at home.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect gender equality?

One of the most striking effects of the coronavirus will be to send many couples back to the 1950s when both men and women observed strict gender roles and complied with society’s expectations. It was believed that woman’s place was in her home with the family, she did not make important decisions and in a man’s eyes, women were looked upon as objects and ones of lower status.

Since coronavirus pandemic has been spreading, it isn’t just a public-health crisis, but an economic one. Oleksandra Holub, a lawyer, the head of the “Harmony of Equals” NGO notes that women and men have a significant gender income inequality, which creates unequal opportunities.

According to Yuliya Sokolovska, ex-minister of Social Policy of Ukraine, as of November 2019, women are paid 21 percent lower wages than men. This figure is higher than in most European countries.

Since kindergartens and schools have been quarantined, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit looking after their children. As women usually make less money than men, it’s obvious that looking after kids completely falls on female shoulders.

According to “Pandemic, Coronavirus, Quarantine: Women on the Line” research, if a woman works as a freelancer from home, quarantine can make her daily life more complicated by combining work and childcare.

In general, this type of employment is risky to lack of labor guarantees, paid sick and maternity leaves during quarantine, but they are likely to “stay afloat.”

Things have become really tough for single mothers as the loss of earnings due to a decline in productivity can be quite significant.

The situation is more complicated in wage employment. If a woman is officially employed, the Ukrainian legislation provides her an opportunity to use a part of an annual paid leave (or social leave for a mother with two or more children under 15) or unpaid leave.

The option of taking paid or unpaid leave is not available to everyone, especially for single mothers who don’t have relatives that are ready to help with childcare. Accordingly, quarantine can particularly exacerbate the situation of mothers who raise children on their own and especially those who work without labor guarantees.

As for the end of 2017, In Ukraine, the number of single mothers has increased by 22 times over the past 15 years. Nowadays one in five children is born out of wedlock. Such statistics make the current situation for single mothers in the context of losing their jobs or falling income even more dramatic.

The situation with COVID-19 has created an additional challenge for those families that have traditionally relied on the older generation who take care of children, as doctors advise to protect elderly people from social contacts, including kids who might be carriers of the infection, due to the risk of a much more complicated disease course.

Women’s employment and entrepreneurship during the pandemic

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is likely to affect all sectors of the economy. Already, it might be assumed that the most affected will be the service sectors where a large number of women are employed. For example, in 2018, among employees who served clients, 205,600 were women, compared to 36,600 men; 419,300 female and 133,800 male employees held low-level jobs in the trade and service sector. Some companies involved in these fields, especially private ones, are likely to send these workers on unpaid leave.

The challenges will also adversely affect female entrepreneurs. According to research, women make up more than 60 percent of business executives involved in the provision of tourism services, the operation of theaters and concert halls, education and beauty salons. These are precisely the sectors, which earnings will shrink (see Table 1).

A large number of women are engaged in entrepreneurship in those areas that will curtail their activities during the quarantine. A proportion of female individual entrepreneurs in the field of nursery education comprises 91 percent, primary education – 87 percent, hairdressing and beauty salons services– 94 percent, travel agencies – 72 percent. Almost the only “women’s” area of individual entrepreneurs that may be in great demand during quarantine is childcare services, where 91 percent of women are involved (see Table 2).

There is also a great number of female individual entrepreneurs who are engaged in clothing, footwear, food trade, including markets and floating markets. During the quarantine, this trade will be restricted or eliminated. Often, elderly women work in this field. Therefore, these restrictions may further undermine their well-being.

Has coronavirus self-isolation increased domestic violence worldwide?

As the coronavirus pandemic has more of an impact for people as many of them are being advised to work from home, avoid large gatherings and as a result, they experience symptoms of self-isolation for many days.

But while a home is considered the safest place for many people, this is far from reality for victims of domestic violence.

“With women and couples’ self-isolating, there is certainly a higher risk of domestic abuse occurring,” Rebecca Hitchen, campaign manager at the End Violence Against Women Coalition states. “The many ramifications of the outbreak may also mean that women and their children could find it even harder to access safety and specialist support.”

According to “Domestic Violence Cases Surge During COVID-19 Epidemic” research, these secondary effects of the pandemic are already being experienced in China, with activists are reporting a surge in cases of domestic abuse as a result of the self-isolation. Wan Fei, a retired police officer who now runs an anti-domestic violence nonprofit organization in Jingzhou, Hubei, said the number of cases has almost doubled since the quarantine began. “The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence,” the activist said. “According to our statistics, 90 percent of the causes of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic.”

“While everyone’s attention is on the epidemic, victims of domestic violence are very much being neglected,” Wan said. “They deserve more attention and help.”

The study of domestic violence in the UK shows, isolation and financial abuse are common features of domestic abuse relationships, which campaigners warn will only be further aggravated during this pandemic. “The imposition of self-isolation can amplify the abuser’s ability to restrict women’s freedoms and leave them at heightened risk,” Hitchen added.

Has self-isolation increased cases of domestic violence in Ukraine?

UN chief António Guterres is calling for measures to address a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls, linked to lockdowns imposed by governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejčinović Burić has also expressed concern about an increase in domestic violence during the lockdowns due to the coronavirus. She noted that the Council of Europe would monitor the situation in this area in different countries, including Ukraine.

According to the National Police of Ukraine, in March 2020, 22,874 reports of crimes related to domestic violence were recorded, which is 3,000 more compared to January 2020.

National Hotline for Prevention of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking (telephone number 15-47), informs that during the period February 1 – March 31, 1,400 cases concerning domestic violence were registered.

During March 2020, 1,313 complaints, the average number of which amounted to 40-50 daily, were received through National Hotline for Prevention of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking based on La Strada-Ukraine non-government organization, with the support of international organizations, in particular the United Nations Population Fund (tel. 0-800-500-335 or 116-123).

Therefore, reporting crimes to the police has increased. Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Kateryna Pavlichenko noted that since the quarantine has been imposed, the number of reports on 102 hotline concerning domestic violence has not increased. “We suppose that this can be caused by the following factors. On the one hand, forced isolation and staying together with an abuser in one room does not always give the person suffering from domestic violence the opportunity to call for help. On the other hand, victims usually report at 102 hotline when it isn’t the first time when they experienced domestic violence, and this often occurs when the conflict reaches boiling point and there is a direct threat to their life and health. What is more, it is unknown yet for how long the quarantine will last,” Kateryna Pavlichenko informs.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs in close cooperation with Kharkiv National University of Internal Affairs and National Police launched #ДійПротиНасильства (Act to Combat Violence in Ukrainian) chatbot in Telegram messenger on preventing domestic violence during the quarantine.

The chatbot dials 102. It also contains information on other hotlines that can give advice in case of domestic violence. In addition, citizens will be able to communicate with lawyers of legal aid centers and receive legal advice online.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs together with the National Police have drawn up a security plan that includes a number of recommendations for people who are at risk of domestic violence during self-isolation. They are distributed in the information space. In addition, police will place this information on bulletin boards near apartment buildings.

How to avoid conflicts while staying at home during the self-isolation?

Child and family psychologist Antonina Oksanych gives a few tips on how to preserve mutual understanding during the quarantine.

According to the expert, in order to maintain healthy relationships and preservation of mental stability, people need to meet two opposite needs – the need to be alone and express their emotions.

“It seems to me that the best we can do for our partner right now is to just shut everyone out and not touch him or her for a while. So, the person can have a rest. After that, the person will have a desire to communicate. I call it timeout rule,” notes the psychologist.

Families are also advised to agree on a schedule so that everyone has the opportunity to work and to do their own stuff. This is particularly relevant for families with young children who need constant care. For example, at a specific time, one of the adults is working and the other is looking after the baby. Then their roles change.

“I would recommend moving away from gender stereotypes in sharing of responsibilities,” said Oksanych. “When both a man and a woman stay at home, it’s very important to help each other. For example, if you cook all day long, it will drive you nuts. At this time, you can involve kids in household chores.”

The specialist continues that it is important for mental health to be engaged in physical activity. One “moving” hour a day will help you deal with stress. This can be both a morning exercise for the whole family or a walk outside with all safety precautions. Meditation also helps relieve stress at the physiological level, soothe people because they have nowhere to rush and adjust to a new rhythm of life.”

Communication is also important for those who live under the same roof. A person should be able not only to express pent-up frustration but also to be heard. The ability to speak and listen, in particular, can be a great prevention of conflict. This is crucially relevant during collective self-isolation.

A person should not hide his or her emotion but start speaking about them. Meanwhile, it should not be discharging emotions but sharing them. When we share emotions, we can support each other.

According to Helen Lewis, the coronavirus crisis will be global and long-lasting, economic as well as medical. However, it also offers an opportunity. This could be the first outbreak where gender and sex differences are recorded and taken into account by researchers and policymakers. For too long, politicians have assumed that childcare and elderly care can be “soaked up” by private citizens—mostly women. This pandemic should remind us of the true scale of that distortion.

Text: Natalia Ivanova


The material was prepared as a part of Gender Sensitive Space of Modern Journalism, implemented by the Volyn Press Club in partnership with the Volyn Gender Center, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews international organization.