Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 Mobility Restrictions

Credits: Muse Mohammed/IOM

Geneva — The month of March brings a call to action for accelerating gender parity and presents an opportunity to celebrate women and girls. Therefore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the roles women have played and how they have been impacted is essential.

IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) has been collecting information on the number and types of COVID-19 restrictions around the world, the types of people affected by such restrictions, while setting out to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on mobility on particular groups.

Gender has been an important variable in analyzing the differing impacts COVID-19 mobility restrictions have had on varuius population groups, globally. Though often overlooked, there is substantial evidence to suggest that health emergencies disproportionately affect women and girls, particularly in humanitarian contexts.

One year out from the start of the pandemic, we now know more about the effects that mobility restrictions have had on the health, livelihoods and safety of women and girls.

Whether they are migrants, internally displaced persons or refugees, women on the move are being left behind. Here is what we know:

Female health workers around the world are taking great risks to serve their communities and provide essential health care to people suffering from the pandemic. Photo: Nate Webb/IOM

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes women may face a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 than men, given they comprise some 70 per cent of the world’s health and social care workers. They also are more likely to be the primary caretaker for sick members of their own families, increasing their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, IOM has supported risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) on the virus, infection prevention and control (IPC), case management and continuation of essential care. In support of this, DTM integrates health-related indicators in its assessments to reflect women’s access to services, obstacles to care and health-seeking behaviour.

DTM has collected information on COVID-19 awareness, perceptions, family prevention measures and family responses to exposure. One element of this covers differences in information, perception and responses to COVID-19, disaggregated by sex, captured via surveys with migrants in locations known for high levels of mobility.

DTM explored the differences in awareness and access to information around COVID-19 using data collected from both host community members and migrants. For example, at the onset of the pandemic in a study conducted from late March to early April 2020 in Djibouti, more female migrants than male migrants reported they were unaware of the dangers and risk perception of COVID-19.

This continues to be the case. From data collected by DTM in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia between October and December2020, IOM learned that while most migrants displayed awareness of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, female migrants reported less awareness than male migrants.

Globally, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has noted women and other marginalized groups often have less access to accurate information during crises, which can impact their knowledge about COVID-19.

Aminata is one of many female migrant workers who has lost their job since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and economic downturn in Lebanon. Photo: Muse Mohammed/IOM

While it is clear the pandemic and mobility restrictions have significantly impacted employment around the world, an analysis of these consequences through a gender lens remains sorely lacking. What is clear is that gender inequality in the workforce is on the rise.

Female-gendered occupations deemed essential often put employees at the greatest risk of infection. Migrant women are frequently employed in the healthcare and care-giving sectors as home aids, nursing home staff and domestic workers. The close contact required to perform these jobs can elevate the risk of exposure to the virus.

“I worked only four months before corona began and I was kicked out of this house and left without work,” said Agnes, one of many migrant workers in Lebanon who has lost her job since the start of COVID-19. Photo: Muse Mohammed/IOM

The impact of COVID-19 on labour markets often depends on the country. Recent DTM studies from Libya suggest that migrant men who work as day labourers may be significantly impacted by mobility restrictions, which keep them from job sites.

Prior to the pandemic — in December 2019 — DTM found gender, employment status and duration of stay in Libya are key factors that contribute to the vulnerability of migrants. A larger proportion of female migrants in Libya were extremely vulnerable, reporting higher levels of unemployment, poor food consumption and less access to drinking water than male migrants.

By June of 2020, DTM noted the socio-economic impact of the pandemic had exacerbated pre-existing labour vulnerabilities for both men and women. In a report released last September, 27 per cent of migrants interviewed reported being unemployed, an eight per cent rise compared to March.

DTM also found that in 90 per cent of assessed locations in Libya, migrants who work as day labourers were negatively affected by COVID-19 economic slowdowns. Migrants reportedly faced more stringent movement restrictions, which impeded their ability to maintain formal employment.

The majority of migrants (88% men and 77% women) surveyed in Libya also indicated having no signed or written contract. A lack of formalized work agreements leaves migrants, especially women, extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

For migrants of both genders, lack of social protection and job security creates a precarious situation. For women around the world losing access to formal work arrangements, the increased likelihood of abuse, exploitation and grave protection risks raises new concerns.

Photo: Muse Mohammed/IOM

Traffickers and smugglers have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit vulnerable groups.

On 8 December 2020, UN Women stated that 72 per cent of trafficking victims globally are women and girls. Moreover 77 per cent of identified female survivors were trafficked for sexual exploitation. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that migrants and people without jobs were among the groups most targeted by human traffickers due to the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.

Given the rise of exposure to such risk, IOM is promoting a timely Information Management Guide for Counter-Trafficking in Emergencies, developed by IOM in collaboration with partners. The guide offers an evidence-based decision-making approach to support interventions to more systematically integrate counter-trafficking prevention and response to emergencies.

There continues to be a gap in analysis related to the gendered consequences of COVID-19 and related restrictions. In order to not leave women and girls behind, moving forward a more comprehensive evidence base is essential.

Read more from IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix here.

This article was written by Hong Tran and Annie Bartkowski, Associates with DTM London, and Liz Griesmer, IOM-Yale 2020 Summer Fellow.

Official account of IOM, the UN Migration Agency.

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