Covid-19 does not discriminate who it infects. It doesn’t care about age, religion, ability, ethnicity, gender, status or borders. Yet, in our unequal world, not everyone can equally protect themselves against the virus.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has already urged governments to include the protection of women in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While isolation is being advised worldwide as a protection measure, for many women this can be dangerous. Crises and lockdowns can trigger an increase in domestic violence. This can be due to increased stress, reduced access to resources and income, and breakdowns in community support mechanisms.
Already we were facing a global crisis on violence against women. Annually, as many as 50,000 women are killed by intimate partners or family members according to the UN. This means that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third of these women were killed by their current or former intimate partner.
A crisis situation can restrict women’s ability to remove themselves from abusive situations. During a crisis they lack access to essential services, such as safe shelter away from abusers and to be able to seek justice for the abuse.
Fear of infection may also prevent women from accessing essential services. As gender based violence is likely to rise, and access to essential services are likely to decrease as resources are diverted to Covid-19 care, women are at increased risk. As water become scarcer, women and girls can also become more vulnerable to violence while collecting water and using latrines.
Coping during crisis
In other recent crises, such as the ebola outbreak and Cyclone Idai, some households were forced to use negative coping strategies in order to cope. They would reduce the amount of food they would consume, or borrow money and go into debt to pay for food, or engage in sex for money or food. There was also an increase in early, forced or child marriages.
Generally women and girls are more likely to be malnourished than men and boys, and during crises social norms dictate that women and girls eat last and least, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is particularly concerning for women who are pregnant or lactating. They could face additional health complications.
Women and girls who have reduced food consumption and are forced to engage in transactional sex may be more likely to contract HIV or STIs due to a lower immune system.
Women living in refugee camps or conflict affected areas face additional risks of infection. Such precarious accommodation further complicates and diminishes women’s access to vital resources, and to basic protection measures. Physical distancing due to overcrowding is not possible.
Women working at the frontline
Women and girls, especially those living in poverty and from marginalised groups, are putting in 12.5 billion hours every day of care work for free, which right now puts them in harm’s way of Covid-19.
Water collection, a necessary daily task, is putting women and girls at greater risk of exposure to infection. Trócaire’s latest report, Women Taking the Lead, highlights that women and girls around the world spend a daily cumulative of 200 million hours collecting water. This is now likely to increase given there is greater demand on water for disease prevention. Already 2 out of every 5 people in the world do not have access to hand washing facilities.
Women are also at greater risk of infection outside of the home, as women comprise more than 75 percent of the health care workforce in many countries, according to to Human Resources for Health (HRH) Global Resource Center. This puts women at the frontlines of exposure.
Due to the fear of becoming infected or infecting others, women may also experience stress and increased anxiety.
Your support can protect women
Every year, we support thousands of women in our women’s empowerment programme. For survivors of violence we provide support, recovery and social change. We also engage men to improve attitudes towards violence against women.
Supporting women and local women’s networks is key to the battle against Covid-19. Our teams protected people from ebola in Sierra Leone and DR Congo, and with your support we can do it again.
Together, we can defeat this.
by Denise Kiernan
COVID-19 knows no borders and neither does your compassion. We know not everyone is in a position to support this work right now, but if you can, please consider supporting our Lent appeal. Your support means we can support communities affected by COVID-19 in places like Syria, Gaza and Somalia.
You can donate online or by phoning:
1850 408 408 (Republic of Ireland)
0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).