For Women, COVID-19 Reveals a Shadow Pandemic

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Virus has led to worsening of rights for women on all fronts, experts say.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened health, equality and opportunities for women around the world, according to experts speaking during a briefing by Ethnic Media Services.

2020 was to be a year to celebrate the realization of women’s rights that were envisioned by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, enacted in 2000 by U.N. Women. Instead, COVID-19 and the ensuing economic and health impacts have led to a worsening of rights for women on all fronts.

Dr. Beatrice Duncan, policy advisor, Rule of Law, United Nations Women, noted that since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a spike in instances of domestic violence. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.

“Women around the world are in lockdown situations, this is relegating them to the household or to be the same environment with their abusers,” Duncan stated. “As a result, we’ve seen at three-fold spike in domestic violence. Because police are part of frontline staff, they are not getting protection from police instantly.”

She noted that women are working three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work, which limits women’s ability to earn money outside the home. Also, women tend to be employed in sectors, such as tourism, that have been most impacted.

“We are seeing a spike in unpaid care work. In countries where schools are closed, women are bearing the brunt of online school sessions,” Duncan explained.

Mimi Lind, director of the Venice Family Clinic, offered a perspective on domestic violence in the Southern California region. The clinic services approximately 28,000 people regardless of immigration status. She said being unable to meet with women means they are less likely to report instances of abuse.

“When they come to the clinic, we ask every woman a question about domestic violence. When they are not coming to the clinic, it’s harder to ask those questions,” Lind said. “If they’re calling on the phone now … they might be sitting next to perpetrator.”

Often for a victim of domestic violence, a trusted confidant could be a member of staff, such as a security guard or receptionist.

“We have lost some of those informal connections where they might open up and tell the truth,” Lind said.

Even though courts are currently closed in Los Angeles, women can still receive restraining orders.

“Domestic violence is a pandemic. It is across all cultures, from small villages to huge cities. The difference is the way they do it,” Lind said.

In healthcare, because women tend to be frontline workers, such as nurses, they are also more at risk of exposure to COVID. In Italy, women made up 66 percent of the healthcare workers infected by the disease. Access to PPE in the right sizes is important to maintain health and safety.

U.N. Women have urged that special attention be given to the health, psychosocial needs and work environment of frontline female health workers, including midwives, nurses, community health workers, as well as facility support staff.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), said COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of economic gains made by women.

“Just a few months ago we were celebrating gains of women in the workforce. When we reported those numbers, we knew there was something beneath the numbers, women were still struggling to make ends meet,” Mason said. “COVID has exposed the fragility.”

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women have borne the brunt of job loss since the start of the pandemic, 11.3 million (55 percent of the total), compared with 9.2 million jobs lost by men.

Mason also pointed to the loss of daycare for children as a burden on women, placing many in the position of having to take care of their kids or risk losing their jobs.

“Women are continuing their 40-hour work week, maintaining productivity and also primary caregiving demands. It’s an undue burden on women,” Mason stated.

She said flexible work schedules and daycare will help women as they re-enter the workforce.

“We need to make sure women have support to not only enter the workforce but stay there,” she said.

Dr. Kirsten Swinth offered a historical perspective on the current pandemic that offered some hope that the current crisis will lead to advancements for women. Swinth is a professor of history at Fordham University.

During the 1918 pandemic, women played a large role as nurses, providing essential care beyond even what male doctors could provide at the time.

“Doctors had few remedies and no heroic interventions. Contrast to the intubations of today,” Swinth explained. “Nurses recalled the pandemic more positively because they provided essential care during a time of crisis, in what one called the ‘most horrible and yet a beautiful experience.’”

Nurses were idealized as heroines and gratitude from the public for their work played a role in the suffrage movement and eventual ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, women faced severe unemployment and working women, particularly women of color, faced hostility.

“In the face of severe unemployment, women were drawn into activism. There was a wave of housewife-led militancy. Women staged anti-eviction protests, rent strikes, and lobbied for affordable public housing, and created large-scale barter networks,” Swinth said.

Swinth said that there were important lessons to learn from past crises, noting parallels between the past and present.

“I’m a little hopeful. I think it’s possible that valorizing nurses and essential workers could be leveraged for improved pay and working conditions,” she said.

“Rent strikes, affordable housing, ways to reduce cost of living, barter networks — the bottom line is nothing happens automatically. Crises in and of themselves don’t lead to greater change. Change happens because of organizing to rectify problems that the crisis has exposed.”

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