Women have been marginalized in studies and reports on COVID 19. This is truly strange and also interesting in view of the fact that women are in the forefront of the entire epidemic forming virus. Women in their social roles as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters are deeply involved and therefore, perhaps more susceptible than men to the virus. Women in their professional roles as nurses, paramedics, primary health care workers, specially appointed workers in quarantine and other medical camps. Working or non-working, or working part-time, social distancing is difficult for women which makes them more prone to infection and less able to afford protection through face-masks, hand sanitizers. Women bear the brunt of care responsibilities, are at greater risk of domestic violence and are disproportionately disadvantaged by reduced access to sexual- and reproductive-health services. Because women are more likely than men to have fewer hours of employed work and be on insecure or zero-hour contracts, they are more affected by job losses in times of economic instability.
The three priorities are to tackle domestic violence; ensure access to sexual- and reproductive health services, and support women’s livelihoods.
Most of the discussion around coronavirus pandemic are either gender blind or gender-neutral. Women constitute two-thirds of the global health worker the gendered reality remains intact as a striking pattern across the world. A World Health Organization (WHO) working paper (2019) on ‘Gender equity in the health workforce’ mapped as many as 104 countries, revealed 70 per cent of workers in the health and social sector are women. Also, ‘biological differences’ between males and females are amplified through myriad forms of gendered responses to the pandemic. In fact, the arrangements of counter-measures to lethal coronavirus disease are considered masculine, However, other than what precautions pregnant women need to take in order to protect themselves and their unborn babies from infection?
As cities around the world have gone into lockdown and quarantine mode, the reports of an alarming rise in domestic violence are mostly related to Coronavirus pandemic. National Commission for Women (NCW) has received several calls of domestic violence across the country. Amid the Coronavirus epidemic, women’s vulnerabilities across the world are aggravating the pre-existing gender-based susceptibilities. There’s no doubt that the pandemic accelerates economic stress among low-income households. As a result, women in these households are the worst-hit. In emergent public health emergencies, women’s increased financial dependence on the male members bolsters the patriarchal norms of households. The gendered architecture of families furthers the process of marginalization of women in the family. Huge economic uncertainties due to pandemic increase women’s fragility that exposes them to face the increased unemployment.
In February, Fox News reported that Chinese women paramedics were shaving their heads to take proper care of the COVID 19 patients. But while they were reported as having volunteered to shave their heads, one live video showed a paramedic with a shaved head breaking into tears. But men paramedics did not shave their heads. Why? The women nurses and paramedics were also given oestrogen to postpone their periods so that their work does not get obstructed even temporarily that might keep them away from taking care of patients under their care.
There is hardly any coverage of women hawkers, street food sellers and cooks, caregivers from agencies, private nurses, female domestics, pavement dwellers, market hawkers, construction workers, porters, etc about how they are being affected by the virus and how they would be able to protect themselves, or take action immediately or recognize the signs and approach for help.
We know that with school closures, for some, there’s a risk of falling behind; for girls from the poorest backgrounds across the world, it could mean watching their futures disappear. “Girls, especially in low-income communities, are at higher risk of increased gender-based violence, early marriage and a higher rate of [child] pregnancy,” Mr. Heather Simpson, Chief Program Officer of the non-profit educational organisation told The Telegraph.
Housewives who have to visit crowded places like markets, shops, to do their daily shopping and cannot afford to indulge in online shopping which is both expensive and uncertain and, in some areas, even risky, are covered only along with the general population. Bar girls, dancers, junior artistes are not only vulnerable but are also stopped from pursuing their trade and will soon be pushed to the edge of starvation. There is no coverage of such women in the media as of today.
In India, there are over 30 million white-collar employees; for every two of them there is one domestic worker to run their household and most of them are women. The count of women entering the “domestic” sphere of “work” has risen by 120 per cent and yet, they remain outside the ambit of social security and legal protection.
Fears for the safety of women and girls have been sparked after a 14-year-old girl was raped by two men while staying at India’s largest Covid-19 quarantine centre in New Delhi.
Read more here Dilemma For Women: Safety Or Life?
The sole saving grace, however, arrived in the form of a brilliant news report published in the Indian Express that described, fairly in detail, how the sudden drop in footfall in Sonagachhi in Kolkata, one of the biggest red light areas in India, is affecting the sex workers financially while increased footfalls will impact on their susceptibility to getting infected by customers.
Sonagachhi has seen a 50 per cent decline in customers’ footfall in the last three-four days – a period when the number of Covid-19 cases increased in the country. According to Smarajit Jana, chief adviser and founder of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (a sex workers’ organisation), sex workers are apprehensive to seek out clients under the present circumstances
Can’t we have more such stories involving women as subjects to address the blind spots of gendered distress we do not even talk about? The already stigmatised women’s role in the public sphere is aggravated by the epidemic. Post Covid-19 situation may bring more and more behavioural and mental changes among women with huge post-traumatic stress. The country has no infra-structure one may agree. But just as the entire country is prepping itself up to face the virus war, should it also not include the creation of a temporary infra-structure for these marginalised women? Policy decisions need to articulate gendered concerns during public health emergencies because gender-sensitive pandemic planning may substantially mitigate these concerns.
( views in the editorial are personal )