Gender Through a Covid Lens

 

By R Jennifer War and Glenn Kharkongor

Everywhere one looks, it is women who bear the most responsibility for holding societies together, at home, in health care, in schools, or in caring for the elderly. In many countries, women perform many of these tasks without pay. But while the spotlight of the Covid pandemic has been on health, and secondary attention is being paid to the effect of the pandemic on the economic landscape, the gender cost has hardly received even lip sympathy.

Political leadership during the pandemic, while purportedly propelled by public health necessity, has been typified by power plays and in many countries the entrenchment of authoritarianism. When political autocracy grows and the economy declines, these twin factors militate against women. The hard-fought gains of gender slide back into the darkness of patriarchy.

So many of the stories of Covid casualties are about women in distress. Women who deliver on the road, or at the hospital gate, a woman in labour denied admission because she is from a containment zone, a 14-yearold girl raped in a quarantine centre, a woman’s newborn baby sold by a desperate labourer husband, homeless elderly women living on the footpath. Such heartbreaking stories multiply daily.

In pandemics, the physical, social and economic fallout is felt more acutely by women. In these Covid times, while we see pictorial and graphic statistics on every page, very little is about women. Recent data from the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) show a rapid increase in cases of domestic violence. In 2020, between March 25-May 31, 1,477 complaints of domestic violence were made by women. This 68-day period recorded a 10-year high.

From the National Family Health Survey data (2015-16) we know that one-third of women have experienced spousal violence. Only 14% of these women seek help, down from 24%, 15 years ago, 77% do not mention the incident to anyone. Meghalaya is on par with the national average, but twice as much as Mizoram and Nagaland. Domestic violence among Christians is not different than the national average. Patriarchy, matriliny, religion: none of these make any difference.

Global bodies express concern

The World Health Organization has called all member states to invest in gender-sensitive research in determining the impact of Covid-19. In a statement, underscored in bold letters it said, “There is limited availability of sex- and age-disaggregated data, thus hampering analysis of the gendered implications of COVID-19 and the development of appropriate responses”.

Initial reports reaching the WHO and the United Nations indicate that domestic violence has increased by at least one-third during lockdowns, women being trapped at home with their abusers.Increased stress in the home, restriction of movement, difficulty in seeking help are exacerbating factors in the increase in sexual and gender-based violence. Women also face increased risk from men with rigid notions of masculinity who refuse to wear masks or adhere to distancing precautions.

Access to reproductive health services including contraception, menstrual hygiene products, and safe terminations of unintended pregnancy, has been curtailed. Most evident of all are restrictions to antenatal care, hospital deliveries, and infant care. Yet women make up 70% of the global health force and social services. They have increased exposure to Covid infection, around two-thirds of health workers infected with Covid are women.

Women with coronavirus symptoms are sometimes dismissed by doctors as having a psychological condition or stress.Past research shows such bias by health professionals. Women are less likely to be tested if they complain of cardiac symptoms, and more likely to die after a heart attack due to a lack of care.

The year 2020 marks the silver jubilee of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, when the Beijing Declaration for Women was declared. The United Nations in a recent policy communique has remarked that even the limited gains made in the last few decades are at risk of being rolled back during the pandemic. Already women spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work. In many countries, women eat last and the least, rendering them even more vulnerable to anemia and malnutrition.

A World Bank paper has stressed the increased threat to housing, land ownership and property rights (HLP) by women during the pandemic especially in low and middle income countries. According to the World Bank, “Previous epidemics, and post-conflict or post-disaster situations, have shown that women are likely to be further disenfranchised of their rights to HLP if their rights are not protected.  During the AIDS epidemic, widows and orphans often lost property to other family members and were left homeless, even as they dealt with their own health emergencies. Women in traditional, customary, or informal marriages are further at risk, because legal rights to HLP are usually dependent on their being formally married (in relationships sanctioned by the state).”

Concerns in India

In Mumbai, 4.5 million people lack a household water connection, forcing them to line up at community water taps. In her 2012 award-winning book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo writes: “She lost two hours of her morning standing in line for water at a dribbling tap…” The operative word here is she; this task almost always falls to women.

According to Sitaram Shelar of Pani Haq Samiti, an NGO focused on water access,“Under India’s strict COVID-19 lockdown, household water needs have swelled, owing to high summer temperatures, all family members being at home, and the emphasis on frequent hand-washing. The result: Women are spending more time queuing up. Shelar goes on to say that as women step out in the wee hours of the morning to get water, they often face sexual and verbal harassment.

Aparna Joshi, Project Director of iCall, a mental health helpline, called the current situation “a brewing pot”. Frustrated, unemployed, and struggling to access tobacco and alcohol, men are unloading their anger through physical, verbal and sexual assault. The surge of violence is affecting millions of women of all classes.

According to SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), in the sudden lockdown, women found themselves without any means of support. The remittances from their migrant menfolk in the cities stopped abruptly. At the same time, women’s own incomes collapsed. Women who grow vegetables could not take them to market; garment factories are closed, domestic labour curtailed. Among BPL families, 45% have not got free rations, 70% had not received money into their Jan Dhan accounts.

Even in higher paid jobs in the formal sector, job prospects for women have decreased. With reduced public transport, access to the workplace is difficult.

Meghalaya

Like in many parts of the country, women in Meghalaya too have borne the brunt of the pandemic. The poorest families have suffered further deprivation, being denied even the subsistence existence they had earlier. Vegetable and kwai sellers have been hounded off pavements, daily labour is hard to find. Children who received the barest education in rural schools are now at home, forced dropouts who have no access to online education. Mothers who have little education themselves, cannot help with home schooling. Illiteracy, unemployment and starvation looms.

Already Meghalaya has the highest percentage of single-mother headed households. They fall at the lowest rung of the economic scale, with high dropouts among their children and poor access to health services. Women, the mainstay of these families, have to call on their last reserves of resilience.

Middle class mothers have turned into private tutors now. Most urban schools have been giving continuous assignments from the start of the lockdown in March. Home school has to be integrated into the schedule of household chores. Help from domestic workers and family members is limited because of restricted movement and increase in transportation costs. Mothers with office jobs struggle to keep up with online work.

In pandemic decision making at all levels, women are underrepresented. The UN has advised that national and regional strategic plans must be grounded in gender differentiation, with special provisions for women and girls in policy making and implementation, with their full participation in all levels. A recommendation of the World Bank is that cash relief must be placed in the hands of women. Are the men in power listening to these recommendations?

Yet there are tales of heroism. Mansi  Bariha,a 19-year old tribal girl’s brave actions led to the release of six thousand migrant workers, virtually held captive, in brick kilns in Tamilnadu. Another teenage girl, 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 1200 km to Bihar from Gurugram, carrying her ailing father back home. The resilience of our response to Covid lies in the hands of women.

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