Covid-19 has disproportionately affected women and girls worldwide. A new report examines the evidence and recommends why targeted relief is essential.
As world leaders gear up for the 76th UN General Assembly on September 21, sustaining economic growth amid a global pandemic will be at the top of the agenda. Also on the agenda will be the role of women in society and the economy.
With more data incoming, it has become increasingly clear the extent to which the pandemic has exacerbated economic disparities for women and girls worldwide. Studies from around the world reveal women are now more likely to face poverty, economic insecurity, gender-based violence, and barriers to accessing health services.
FP Analytics, the independent research division of Foreign Policy magazine, just published a deep-dive “Elevating Gender Equality in COVID-19 Economic Recovery” that examines how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women and why recovery plans must include and prioritise women. It also included what actions policymakers and investors can take to help ensure women are at the heart of post-pandemic recovery efforts.
“The socioeconomic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed progress toward gender equality globally,” the report said.
Women and work
With labour markets devastated globally, women have dropped out of the workforce at a greater rate than men, the report said, adding that they were 22 percent more likely to lose employment in comparison to men.
These declines will “likely prove long-lasting due to underlying pervasive and systemic inequities” faced by women it said, including “restrictive gender norms that curtail their autonomy and mobility, the burden of unpaid care work, occupational and sectoral segregation, and unequal access to resources”.
Because women are overrepresented in low-paid and low-skilled sectors and occupations, they are more likely to work in the informal sector and have less access to social protections and health entitlements associated with formal employment.
The social sectors women tend to be most concentrated in are hospitality, retail, food services and tourism – all of which were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Furthermore, women-led enterprises have been also more likely to report closures compared to those led by men, and more affected in areas of sales, profits, liquidity, and growth. In India, a third of women entrepreneurs surveyed in four states closed their business temporarily or permanently.
Emerging evidence reveals disproportionately high job and income losses for women and slower recovery when compared to men.
A survey done in China, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the US found that women were 24 percent more likely to permanently lose their job compared to men, and expected their labour income to fall by 50 percent more than men did.
Another survey in India, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa found that 35 percent of young women were unable to continue with their regular paid work following the pandemic.
The care crisis
Care work, which is highly feminised, is undervalued and often unpaid or underpaid. “This structural division exploits and subordinates women – particularly those who are already marginalized in society and more likely to experience poverty,” the report said.
The value of unpaid care and domestic work is estimated at $10.8 trillion annually, which is three times the size of the global tech industry. Overall, women contribute $3 trillion annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid care work.
“Women’s disproportionate role in unpaid care work is now acting as a ‘shock absorber’ that bridges the gaps in services, both public and private, that are either too expensive or no longer available because of Covid-19 restrictions,” the report added.
An Ipsos poll conducted for UN Women in 16 high- and middle-income countries back in October 2020 found the average time spent by women on child care tasks increased from 26 to 31 hours per week since the pandemic started, compared to an increase of 20 to 24 hours for men.
In a survey of women-owned businesses in rural India, 43 percent of respondents reported their unpaid care work increased, and nearly 60 percent said their time spent managing their businesses decreased.
Migrant domestic workers – nearly 75 percent of whom are women and typically women of colour – have been particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic as they are often informally employed and beyond the reach of labour laws.
Adolescent girls have also been acutely affected. The Malala Fund estimates that the pandemic could force around 20 million secondary school-age girls in low- and middle-income countries out of school permanently, putting them at greater risk of child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and sexual/gender-based violence.
Women in the informal economy
Women working in the informal sector – such as street vendors, waste pickers, and agricultural labourers and farmers – face heightened vulnerabilities with no labour or social protections available.
An estimated 740 million women around the world work in the informal economy, and can be the greatest source of employment for women in some countries. In India for example, nearly 82 percent of women’s employment is concentrated in the informal sector – which suffered tremendously following the country’s stringent lockdown last March.
Women wage workers and entrepreneurs in the informal economy have experienced widespread losses too. As a result, many have depleted their savings, sold assets, and taken on overwhelming debt.
Gender-blind policy responses
The report highlighted the majority of pandemic recovery policies to date, be it social protection, labour market, fiscal and economic measures, have been designed without accounting for a gender perspective. It added that gender inequities may “worsen” while opportunities for broader economic growth and resilience-building are missed in the process.
While 1,700 social protection and labour market measures have been adopted in response to the pandemic, only 23 percent specifically target women’s economic security or address the discrepancies of unpaid care.
And of 580 fiscal and economic recovery measures to date, only 12 percent focus on strengthening women’s employment by channelling resources to female-dominated sectors.
The (unintentional) favouring of male-dominated sectors and jobs in recovery efforts “will only further exacerbate sectoral and occupational segregation and fail to address the needs of millions of women who lost, and continue to lose, jobs and earnings in hard-hit feminized sectors,” the report said.
Additionally, as national debts soar, the imposition of austerity measures threatens the welfare of women. More than 80 percent of the IMF loans negotiated since last March lock countries into fiscal measures that may force cuts to critical health and social services, which women from lower socioeconomic standings and in low- and middle-income countries particularly rely on.
Glaring gender data gaps have also been worsened by the pandemic’s toll on data collection mechanisms, in addition to long-running issues of chronic under-investment and lack of prioritisation. Core gender data systems have been underfunded by an average of $448 million a year from 2015 to 2020.
The report makes five main policy recommendations, referred to as the “5R framework” that identifies areas for government action.
First is to support universal and gender-responsive social protections and safety nets that reduce gender-based vulnerabilities throughout life, regardless of employment or migration status.
Second is to undertake job stimulus, targeted support, and multisectoral policy action to restructure labour markets that marginalise women.
Third is to rebuild economic and health systems that do not rely upon the unpaid and underpaid care work of women.
Fourth is to mobilise more and better resources to support gender equality both nationally and abroad.
The final recommendation is to invest in robust gender data systems and research efforts that bring visibility to people’s differential needs based on their gender and other intersecting sources of inequality.