Comment: Women’s vulnerability during the Covid-19 pandemic


  • Focus
  • Sunday, 29 Mar 2020

THE Covid-19 pandemic has caused a disruption to our everyday lives. Governments are racing to respond to the unprecedented demand for support as the number of those affected by the novel coronavirus soar. In an effort to control the rising numbers, governments globally have put movement restrictions in place. With some restrictions lasting for months in countries such as the lockdown in China, concerns on its impact on women, and their vulnerabilities, have been raised.

Past health crisis such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014 have highlighted the unique challenges and vulnerabilities women and girls face. In times of crisis, gender inequalities unfortunately compound and are amplified. UN Women and various other international and local organisations have raised concerns relating to the exacerbation of gender inequality issues, such as the disproportionate burden of care and gender-based violence as the crisis continues.

As schools begin to shut globally, over 80% of the world’s student population in over 130 countries are affected. This affects the burden of care, which already disproportionally affects women compared to men. According to a Khazanah Research Institute Report on Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey, in 2018 alone, women make up 76.2% of the caregiving population outside the labour force.

The mass closing of schools would hit women particularly hard because much of the responsibility of care for children would fall on women. Consequentially, women working in essential services would struggle with the changes from the Movement Control Order.

The burden of care for women is not only limited to caring for children but also broadly includes care for ill family members, the elderly in extensive families, as highlighted by UN Women. Thus, women would find less flexibility and to a certain extreme, women working part-time could be forced to leave their jobs to meet the growing household and domestic demands.

The measures put into place to protect society from the spread of the disease such as movement restriction orders, quarantines, curfews and school closures also put women at greater risk of violence.

Evidence has shown that gender-based violence escalate in the wake of emergencies, crisis and conflict. During China’s Covid-19 lockdown, reports of domestic violence (which includes physical, psychological, sexual or economic violence or mistreatment of a family member against another family member as defined by the UN), nearly doubled in the Hubei province, according to a Chinese non-profit organization based in Jingzhou, a city in Hubei Province. Similarly, the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 confirmed how epidemics leave women vulnerable to gender-based violence. A key reason behind the rise in violence is the heighten stress in households, given the instability and financial strains, among others. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, studies recorded a 98% increase in physical victimisation of women.

Women are also less likely to report violence with a movement restriction order in place. The victims would not have the option to seek intervention with an abuser present.

Ordinarily, women are more likely to seek an early intervention or any form of help from authorities or friends when the abuser physically leaves home. This option will no longer be possible with the order in place. It has been found that increased seasonal migration reduces gender-based violence in Bangladesh because women spend less time with the potential perpetrators of the violence.

In an effort to curb the rise of women’s vulnerability during the Covid-19 pandemic, the leadership and meaningful participation of women and girls in all decision-making processes in addressing the Covid-19 outbreak needs to be strengthened.

Inter-agency cooperation between different ministries, as well as a combined effort between the government and civil society ensures efficiency in tackling social issues as a whole.

Such measures could include co-operation for hotline services that help with moral or emotional support, or early intervention or support. This would be a step in the right direction to highlight a gendered perspective into policies and measures. It would also ensure the measures introduced in light of the Covid-19 pandemic would ensure the safety of all citizens.

Tengku Nur Qistina is a Senior Researcher with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS Malaysia) and can be contacted at tnqistina@isis.org.my.

She also founded the Network of Malaysian Women in Security and Foreign Affairs (WISEA).

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