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COVID-19 Through a Gendered Lens

BY: Emily Thom

Crises have a strange way of magnifying society’s inequalities while testing the efficiency of its pre-existing institutions. COVID-19 is no exception, revealing that the patriarchy is alive and well as it continues to burden women with the challenges of our civilization in limbo. The reality is that women are navigating a global health crisis from an inherently disadvantaged socioeconomic position with little support from governing bodies.

Women are quite literally on the front lines of COVID-19, representing 70% of healthcare and social workers globally, according to a recent report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF). As such, they face a higher rate of exposure to the pandemic while suffering from the psychological effects of being frontline workers. However, the UNPF reports that the coronavirus consumes a vast amount of resources that consequently deprive female healthcare workers of the mental health services they require.

The scope of this resource shortage extends beyond healthcare professionals to implicate women more broadly in terms of their sexual health and reproductive rights. The sexual health of women relies upon a safe and efficient healthcare system—a rarity in these times. Failure to provide such a system jeopardizes their access to birth control and hinders the prospect of a safe childbirth. In recognition of this harsh reality, the World Health Organization urges that “women’s choices and rights to sexual and reproductive health care […] be respected regardless of COVID-19 status”. The gender dynamics at play in this pandemic threaten the well-being and fundamental rights of women everywhere. This phenomenon is only worsened by income inequality, as well as other legal and cultural barriers that prevent women from accessing reproductive health services.

Another potent threat posed by COVID-19 is the lack of social services for victims of domestic violence. The UNPF states that women are at a higher risk of domestic violence during quarantine because they are forced to be at home or in a shared space for extended periods of time. This increase may also be attributed to heightened tensions within households. Evidence of this is the 49% increase in calls to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline since the lockdown began in March. However, there are less resources than ever available for victims of intimate partner violence and domestic abuse because many organizations that serve as crisis centers and safe havens for women have been forced to shut down temporarily. With nowhere to turn, women in these potentially life-threatening situations are left to their own devices.

On an economic front, women are once again systematically disadvantaged. University College London’s Institute of Education found that mothers are 47% more likely to have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. In addition, the sectors of hospitality and retail, which both employ a large number of women, are expected to be the hardest hit by pandemic-related economic downturn. This inequity is rooted in the fact that women were in a disadvantaged economic position to begin with, especially women of colour and members of the LGBTQIA2+ community. Besides the infamous gender wage gap, women also experience less job security and have less opportunities for professional growth, commonly referred to as the “glass ceiling”. In Canada alone, women make up 60% of economically “struggling” individuals who are unable to afford basic necessities, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. COVID-19 creates even more challenges for these women since many support services, such as food banks and community centres, are closed.

In the long run, such economic inequalities could effectively undo the strides made towards female empowerment in the workplace in recent years. Sam Smethers, Chief Executive Officer of UK charity Fawcett Society, says that “we’re looking at a two-tier workplace where men go back [to work] and women stay home”. This is due to the fact that women are absorbing the majority of extra household tasks and childcare in the midst of the pandemic. If this trend continues, society would regress towards the distinct gender roles of the past in confining women to largely unpaid work within the household.

Women are at the forefront of the battle against a global pandemic and are suffering for it. May one of the many takeaways from this crisis be that sexism lives on in 2020 and seems to thrive when our institutions are put to the test. It is therefore crucial that women’s voices be heard in COVID-related decision-making processes. Recognizing the inequalities magnified by this pandemic is simply not enough. Governments and corporations must take the lead by implementing policies that address the direct and indirect gendered effects of the outbreak.

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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