The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Inequality

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified systemic gender inequality worldwide. Merely due to their gender, women and girls are disadvantaged at a greater scale.[1] According to the World Economic Forum, women now face a 136-year wait before achieving full equality with men. This is an additional 37-years wait, in comparison to pre-pandemic estimates.[2] The immediate regressive effects of COVID-19 on gender equality can be seen through income/employment disparities, the increased trend in gender-based violence, the burden of unpaid care work, and the increased risk of child marriages [3]. It must be noted that the following is not a comprehensive list of the effects of COVID-19 on gender equality.

Job/Income Loss

According to the ILO, women make up a large fraction of informal work and occupations with long working hours, low income, hazard to safety and health, and the likelihood of harassment and violence.[4] Women also have high employment shares in sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. hospitality, tourism, food service). Further, an ILO policy brief identifies “there will be 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, while men’s employment will have recovered to 2019 levels”.[5] Therefore, women are disproportionately impacted through loss of income and employment triggered by the pandemic.[6] In the policy brief, ILO advocated for policy measures such as advocating for equal pay, preventing/eliminating work-related harassment and gender-based violence (GBV), and including women into leadership and decision-making roles.[7]

A discussion paper published by McKinsey&Company estimates that “the economic benefits of narrowing gender gaps are six to eight times higher than the social spending required”[8] and MGI’s 2015 report claims that “advancing equality for women can add $12 trillion to global growth rate”.

Gender-based Violence

At the start of the pandemic, lockdown measures were imposed in many countries in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. As a result, this caused a rise in gender-based violence cases globally.[9] Further, research found that employment and income loss are one of the contributing factors to an increase in Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC) during the pandemic.[10] Other contributing factors to VAWC include food scarcity and substance abuse by the perpetrators.[11]

Girls' Education & Child Marriages

School closures during COVID-19 are likely to curb the immense progress made to girls’ education these 25 years and the possibility of many girls not returning to school once it reopens, as was seen post-Ebola crisis. For girls, schools enable contact with peers/mentors and are their support network. When this is severed due to school closure, it limits their support network and hence, increases the likelihood of GBV. Moreover, because of the overwhelming COVID-19 cases in hospitals, this has impacted services for GBV cases as funds for female health care and support services have been re-directed to tackling the pandemic.[12]

UNICEF estimates that an additional 10 million girls could become child brides in the next decade as a consequence of the pandemic. The economic insecurity caused by the pandemic may cause parents to subject their daughters to child marriages in order to reduce the family's financial burdens. Education is an important factor in preventing child marriages. Hence, school closures and limited reproductive health services caused by the pandemic will increase the risk of teenage pregnancy and child marriages. Therefore, it is important to put through social protection measures to protect the education of every child, and law/policies that secure female health and social services.[13]

Increased Burden of Unpaid Care Work

The pandemic also saw women’s share of the world’s unpaid care work rising to 75% (on average), this figure rose to 80-90% in North Africa, Middle East and South Asia, due to gender norms that place responsibility of child/elderly care and household labours onto the women.[14] Further, social distancing measures had significantly affected women due to the closure of schools and day care centres[15] and prohibited informal childcare provided by relatives or friends[16]. This increases the burden of childcare duties onto the mother, with single mothers disadvantaged the most.[17] Various research also show a negative correlation between unpaid care work by women and female participation in the labour force.[18] Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research (2020) proposed creating workplace flexibility,[19] removing gender-based expectations of labour division at home,[20] and unemployment benefits or sufficient pay to employees voluntarily taking leave from work to assume care duties.[21]

Written by Nadiah Azman