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A Gendered Human Rights Analysis Of Covid-19
By Nalinaksha Singh
As the world struggles to face the COVID-19 pandemic with strict social distancing measures and lockdowns, Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) and Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) has increased tremendously. In addition to the increased violence and abuse against women, the crisis has also triggered a series of gendered implications. The article focuses on these devastating gender-skewed consequences and suggests responses to mitigate their impact and rectify long-standing inequalities.
The pathways linking Violence and Pandemics
France, United States of America, Canada, India, Argentina, United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany have all registered a significant rise in police complaints regarding domestic abuse since the spread of corona virus: suggesting a horrifying global surge. The reasons for intensified violence against girls and women during this pandemic are numerous. Past Public Health Emergencies have highlighted how endemics exacerbate existing inequalities based on socio-economic status, leaving women from vulnerable communities at high risk.
Experts suggest that the rise in violence is linked to heightening tensions about health, security, and money. Low-income families are losing their jobs, resulting in extreme poverty that often leads to domestic stress and violence. Further, lockdowns and quarantine facilities have left survivors unable to escape their abusers, and as rescue shelters are closed to contain the spread of the virus, women have also been forced to return to unsafe households.
In some cases, exposure to sexual exploitation is also created in the response efforts of the government, including abuse by aid workers. For example, during the Ebola Outbreak in Africa, thousands of survivors reported having to exchange sexual favours for essential commodities such as food, water, vaccines, etc. The Zika pandemic also demonstrated that multiple forms of violence are exacerbated within crisis contexts, including trafficking, child marriage, and sexual exploitation and abuse.
In the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, more than 2 lakh people were killed, most of them were women. The traditional ‘care-giver’ role of women forced them to stay behind and look for their loved ones and offer aid. In the tsunami recovery phase, women were often subjected to abuse at the hands of aid workers in shelter homes. Further, they also faced severe hygiene and sanitation issues in these camps.
Pandemics and emergencies make gender-inequalities worse which in turn have a detrimental effect on the care and treatment women and girls receive. The current COVID-19 outbreak may accentuate this exploitation as women face pressure to access supplies which are in acute shortage. In such global crises, the violation of women’s fundamental human rights and dignity can often be seen as collateral damage, minimising the magnitude of the problem.
Even in a catastrophe, girls and women are facing additional difficulties in security, health, and finance- only by virtue of their sex:
Firstly, with public health care services dwindling, the poorest with acute and chronic ailments are left with no access to even necessary facilities. In such situations, women and girls from vulnerable families are suffering the most. Additionally, pregnant women are facing increasing difficulties in gaining proper maternal, newborn, and child care services. Challenges in access to sexual and reproductive healthcare might also put the lives of young women at risk.
Secondly, the impact of COVID 19 on women already living on economic margins will be cataclysmic. In South-Asian nations, over 80% of women engaged in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment. Women also spend three times more hours than men on unpaid care and domestic work while women aged 25–34 are 25% more likely to live in extreme poverty than men.
Experience from the Ebola virus has also indicated that quarantines can significantly reduce women’s economic and livelihood activities, increasing poverty rates, and exacerbating food insecurity. Moreover, while men’s business activities returned to normal soon, the effect on women’s economic activities was much more long-lasting. Across the globe, women will be disproportionately affected economically.
Thirdly, caregiving burden and economic strains might also pull young girls out of school with an adverse impact on their education.
Fourthly, women are three times more likely to experience depression than men, and the current crisis will only further escalate the issue. The mental health of women will likely deteriorate as hormone-induced anxiety and depression peaks.
Fifthly, due to traditional set-ups in most communities, female frontline workers are expected to cook, clean, and complete household chores even after they return from work, with little regard for their health. Further, since gender parity in household work is still a distant dream, women now working from home are facing substantially increased burdens.
Sixthly, since women are often the last ones to eat in most families, a shortage in proper food supplies would undoubtedly lead to women and girls eating much lesser causing immediate health implications, including increased susceptibility to COVID-19.
Seventhly, it has been noted that female-headed families are more likely to have inadequate housing facilities, leading to greater exposure to the virus.
Eighthly, women in healthcare services are facing a considerable risk to their safety and well-being with reports of verbal and physical attacks in India, China, Italy, America, and Singapore. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that women account for nearly 70% of the Global Healthcare Workforce, and in Hubei, 90% of the frontline workers battling COVID-19 were women. These women are facing heightened vulnerability.
Lastly, women in humanitarian crises and conflict-affected areas will be victims to grave human rights violations as emergency provisions are misused. Disruptions to critical health, humanitarian, and development programs can have life and death consequences where health systems may already be overwhelmed or mostly non-existent.
Continued lack of access to proper information and inequalities in digital technologies will only worsen the situation. Resultantly, displaced women and refugees have an even higher risk of facing SEA as they will likely be forced into “survival sex”, the UN Refugee Agency has warned.
The Way Forward: Suggestions and Solutions
First and foremost, all States must recognise that VAWG and SEA are not just crimes against women but for humanity and henceforth, must be taken into consideration when planning any government response to COVID-19. It is imperative to create a culture of taking women’s safety and gender inequality into account while developing public policy- no matter the crisis.
Secondly, as more and more States come up with monetary relief packages that facilitate social assistance (direct cash transfers), these plans must incorporate economic gender disparity. In the short term, economic safety nets must be set-up to aid women facing a loss of income to ensure temporary financial security. In the recovery phase, governments must take earnest measures to ensure full involvement of women in economic activities, equal pay, equal opportunities, financing for women entrepreneurs, and mechanisms to promote women’s self-employment.
Thirdly, Domestic violence shelters (or temporary housing) must be designated as essential services to protect those at high risk of violence in their homes and create safe spaces. Additionally, States must increase resource allocation to such shelters and actively spread awareness about domestic violence through online campaigns.
Fourthly, all States must bolster First Response Teams such as Helplines and Information sharing agencies to provide virtual and free legal advice and mental support. Helpline workers must also be sensitised and trained to handle a considerable rise in the number of calls as the situation worsens.
Fifthly, The Sexual and Reproductive healthcare rights of women are essential, life-saving services that must be included in all response efforts. Special priority must be given to older women, gender-based violence survivors, as well as antenatal, postnatal care and delivery services, including emergency obstetric and newborn care.
Sixthly, The digitalisation of courts is necessary to keep away from a law-vacuum, and judicial systems must take vigorous steps to ensure access to virtual justice for all survivors.
Lastly, Female leadership is necessary to navigate the gender skewed impact of COVID-19 successfully, and women must be included at all levels of planning and operations to ensure the effectiveness and appropriateness of a response.
Even in unprecedented times, women’s rights are human rights.
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Nalinaksha Singh, III Year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab
The author has previously written for the Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH) Blog and has a keen interest in International Law, Constitutional Law and Equality Law. You can mail her here and follow on Instagram as well!
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