COVID-19: Gender And Access To Human Rights


Sebnem Kenis, Senior Policy Advisor (Gender and Human Rights), Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) & Policy Leader Fellow, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute (EUI)

The Covid-19 crisis affects people differently due to already existing structural inequalities, power asymmetries, and cultural and social norms within our societies. “We are all in this together” is not accurate. Even if we are all in this, not in the same ways. Gender is one of the key dynamics shaping how people are influenced by the ongoing pandemic[1]. And this is not peculiar to Covid-19. In any social, economic, environmental, or political turbulence such as natural disasters, wars, conflicts, or economic crises, gender inequalities and norms in interplay with race, class, ability, etc. shape the implications of such upheavals on people’s lives. In this article, I will discuss gendered implications of the Covid-19 crisis on human rights.

Right to work, right to an adequate standard of living, and right to social security

Early reports point out that the Covid-19 crisis has substantial gender implications on economic and social rights including the right to work, right to adequate standard of living, right to food, and right to social security among others.

Unlike the 2008 Recession in which men faced higher unemployment rates because male-dominated sectors such as construction and manufacturing were worse affected, the Covid-19 recession is likely to hit harder women’s employment than men’s as current crisis has drastic adverse impact on female-dominated sectors such as restaurants, leisure and hospitality, and retail sector[2]. In the US, for instance, 60 percent of the jobs lost in March was by women[3].

Millions of people worldwide who lost their jobs are now struggling to pay their rents and bills, bring food to the table, and maintain their livelihoods. Governments are taking a wide range of social protection measures to protect workers including health and unemployment benefits, wage and benefits subsidies, direct cash transfers, and food assistance[4].  Some important gender-related aspects need to be taken into consideration while designing such social protection measures:

First, social protection measures should go beyond workers who hold formal sector jobs and be extended to include informal, part-time and seasonal workers. More than 60% of the world’s employed population earn their livelihoods in the informal economy working as street vendors, waste pickers, cleaners, nannies, or market traders[5].

This rises to 86% in Africa, and 71%  in developing and emerging economies in Asia and the Pacific[6]. Even though globally there are fewer women (740 million) than men (1.260 billion) in informal employment, women in the informal economy are more often found in the most precarious situations, for instance as domestic workers, home-based workers or contributing family workers. Yet they are not eligible for emergency benefits in many countries.

One particularly precarious group among informal workers is domestic workers – the nannies, house cleaners, and other care providers working other people’s homes.

About 90% of these workers are women, and they already labor for low wages without any benefits such as paid sick leave, family leave, health insurance, or pensions[7].  Their situation is dire during the pandemic. In the US, there are almost 2.5 million domestic workers, and according to a new survey from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 94% of domestic workers have had clients cancel due to Covid-19, and 72% reported having no jobs for the week of 6th April at all[8].

This rate is much higher than the unemployment rate in the broader American workforce. 77% of respondents are primary breadwinners, and their households are now experiencing food and housing insecurity and worried about evictions.

Unless their governments extend the social protection schemes to include them, hundreds of millions of informal workers worldwide are facing high risks of poverty, food insecurity, and even hunger[9], which may trigger the adoption of severe negative coping strategies that may take, in some countries, gendered forms such as child marriages or forced marriages.

In line with their obligations defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s -including women informal workers’- access to and utilization of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security, social security, and employment even in times of pandemics or natural or other disasters.

Second, social protection responses should recognize, reduce, and redistribute women’s unpaid care work that has tremendously increased due to the closure of schools and daycare centers. Even in pre-Covid “normal” times, women already carry out 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men, because of the prevalence of traditional gender roles[10].

During Covid-19 crisis, unpaid care burdens on women and adolescent girls have dramatically risen to include caring for the sick, vulnerable elderly family members, and children who are now at home due to the closure of schools and day-care facilities[11].

Worldwide more than 1.5 billion children are out of school right now[12]. Grandparent-provided childcare is now discouraged due to higher mortality rate of the elderly, and given social distancing measures, alternative forms of childcare arrangement such as sharing childcare with neighbors and friends are very limited[13]. Most families have thus no choice but to look after their kids themselves.

Increased caring responsibilities reduces time women can spend on working, generating an income, operating a business, or searching for a job[14].

This poses extra challenges, particularly for single-parent families. In the US, of the nearly 15 million single parent-led households, more than 80% of them are headed by single moms[15]. In other words, 1 in every 5 American children is living with a single mom. These women have shouldered the burden of accommodating exponentially increased caring responsibilities while also tackling with additional social and economic challenges brought by the pandemic.

As analysed by Maria Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, systematically unequal distribution of care work may curtail the enjoyment of human rights by women and girls, including their rights to education, work, social security and participation, as well as to rest and leisure, and it also may undermine or violate women’s rights to the highest attainable standard of health, including mental health, and an adequate standard of living as well as the right to equality and non-discrimination[16].

State policies and practices, including those in regard to Covid-19, must, therefore, recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work. “This requires redistribution in three forms: redistribution between women and men; redistribution from households to the State; and redistribution of time and resources towards poorer families and households.[17]” Increasing men’s participation to unpaid care and domestic work, for example through paid equal parental leave or caring time measures regardless of gender, can have potential to transform gender norms around care provision in the long run[18].

As suggested by the UN Secretary-General, “with so many women continuing to work outside the home as essential service workers, or for families where both parents are home through this period juggling work and child care, fathers assuming primary or shared caregiver roles may have knock on impacts on the division of labour and entrenched gendered roles post-crisis. These shifts will need to be intentionally built on and solidified.[19]

Right to live free from violence

Lockdowns around the world bring rise to a shadow pandemic that is domestic violence against women, LGBTIs, and children. In many parts of the world, from France to Argentina, from Cyprus to Singapore, reports of domestic violence have increased by 25-33% since the lockdowns[20]. In the UK, the number of domestic killings has doubled during lockdown and frontline services report record-breaking cries for help[21].

In Turkey, only in twenty days (between 11-31 March) twenty-one women were murdered by their husbands, partners, or other family members[22]. LGBTI+ youth and adults, especially those who are forced to isolate in hostile family environments, are at risk too.

Shuttering of campuses, colleges, and dorms left many students with no choice but going back to family homes where some of them have to deal with homophobic violence[23]. Situations are worse in countries where sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are directly or indirectly criminalized, limiting the ability of those experiencing violence or harassment to access justice or support for fear of persecution[24]. Some governments have taken urgent mitigation measures against domestic violence spikes[25]:

  • Shelters are deemed essential services and remain open during the lockdown in several countries.
  • Covid-19 aid package announced in Canada includes $50 Million to support shelters. Australia, France and the UK allocated additional dedicated funding to support women experiencing violence and to organisations providing services.
  • In Italy, instead of the survivor having to leave the house of an abuser, prosecutors have ruled that in situations of domestic violence the perpetrator must leave the family home.
  • In France and Germany, as shelters exceed capacity, alternative accommodation is being provided for domestic violence survivors by hotels.
  • Because even calling the hotlines or the police is sometimes practically not possible while being trapped at home with an abusive partner or family member, France and Spain introduced an innovative solution and encouraged people to head to drugstores and use the codeword “mask-19” to alert the pharmacist and bring the police into support[26].
  • In Cumbria, UK, delivery drivers and postal workers are being urged to flag signs of domestic abuse and report any concerns to the police[27].
  • As many countries cancelled planned court sessions, cases of violence are being adjourned. Argentina has taken steps to address delays in the judicial processes and has extended protection orders for survivors to 60 days[28]. Similar strategies and tools should be adopted by the governments to prevent the continuation of violence, avoid impunity and ensure access to justice.

Governments have international human rights obligations to protect individuals, including women, children, and LGBTIs, against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence. They must take urgent actions to ensure those facing domestic or family violence effective access to shelter, support services, and access to justice, including financial support to organizations providing such services. Reckless actions such as Turkey’s recently passed prison release law releasing convicted child abusers, sexual offenders and perpetrators of domestic violence for the sake of reducing overcrowding in prisons should be avoided and reversed[29].

Sexual and reproductive rights

Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights including access to maternal and newborn care, contraception, abortion, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and other sexual and reproductive services and information are unfortunately disrupted during the Covid-19 crisis in many contexts. There are several factors behind this. People’s access to clinics and medical centers are drastically restricted because of reduced mobility and public transportation under ongoing lockdowns, quarantine orders, and curfews[30]. As health systems are overloaded, resources and staff are reallocated to the Covid response.

Also, some local and central governments who oppose abortion, despite being obliged to ensure safe, legal and effective access to abortion under international human rights law[31], are taking advantage of Covid-19 crisis to suspend or ban abortion, by misleadingly classifying it among non-essential surgeries and medical procedures to be delayed during the pandemic.

A pregnant woman living in Ohio, Texas or other six states in the U.S. that suspended abortions and who intends to terminate her pregnancy has to travel hundreds of miles away to another state where she can get access to this service[32]. And this is an option only for those who have the necessary financial and logistical resources and time to make this trip.

Travel restrictions due to Covid-19 have rendered access to safe and legal abortion impossible in some contexts even where there is no legal ban on abortion.

In Turkey, for instance, where intercity travel has been banned for at least four weeks, women with unwanted pregnancies residing in one of many cities in which there is no single public hospital or private clinic providing voluntary abortion service which is a time-sensitive matter are forced to choose between giving birth or illegal unsafe procedures that may risk their lives[33].

According to an estimation by Marie Stopes International (MSI), an organization which provides contraception and abortion services around the world, “Covid-19 disruptions could lead to an additional 1.3 – 3 million unintended pregnancies, 1.2 – 2.7 million unsafe abortions, and 5,000 – 11,000 pregnancy-related deaths in 2020” across 37 countries where they operate[34].

To prevent such risks, it is vital that States define contraception and safe abortion services as essential during the crisis, allow self-managed abortion when appropriate in line with WHO Guidance[35], and ensure uninterrupted and effective access to sexual and reproductive health and rights in compliance with their international human rights obligations.

Right to a safe workplace

Globally, women comprise nearly 70% of global health care workforce, playing a central role in the fight against Covid-19[36]. The rate is even higher in the nursing sector with nine out of ten nurses are women, for example, in China and the UK[37]. Despite being at high risk of infection, many health care workers are not provided the necessary protective equipment or being asked to reuse what is designed as single-use equipment due to the ongoing shortages, which is the breach of occupational safety and health standards and violation of the right to a safe workplace. Even when the medical and protective equipment is available, their protective capacity are sometimes compromised because of gender bias in their design.

The British Medical Association, the professional organisation for doctors, recently called attention to the fact that personal protective equipment (PPE) is usually designed for the size and shape of male bodies, despite 75% of National Health Service (NHS) workers are women[38].

‘One-size-fits-all’ approach translates into ‘Extra-large will fit everyone[39]’ which in practice means that smaller sizes are not made available for smaller-bodied health workers and that they are forced to wear uncomfortable PPE ‘tightened to fit them’ and thus ‘bruising their skins and making them feel hot and unwell[40]’.

The availability of properly fitting protective equipment and compliance with occupational safety standards in hospitals and other medical units is essential for the protection of staff, their families, as well as patients. It is employers’ and States’ obligation to prevent such practices of gender-based discrimination in the workplace and protect health workers’ right to a safe workplace.

Right to education

Past experiences indicate that temporary school closures during times of conflict, war, or emergency situations might mean a permanent end to education particularly for girls. Girls are 2.5 times more likely to drop out of school than boys[41].

In 2015 alone, around 39 million girls were out-of-school because of war and disasters. This causes lifelong consequences including fewer employment opportunities, increased chance of spending their life in poverty, early marriages, or early pregnancies.

States should take necessary measures to make sure girls can equally attend online or remote teaching in the contexts where education moved online and will return to schools once the schools are reopened[42].

Right to equality and non-discrimination

Cases of stigmatization, discrimination, hate speech and attacks on the LGBTI+ community are being reported in several countries. A number of Latin American countries (Panama, Peru, and Colombia) introduced gender-based lockdown schedules. In Panama, for instance, women are allowed to leave the house to buy essential goods on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while men are allowed on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are being stopped, questioned, harassed, body-searched, fined, and/or arrested by law enforcement as their assigned gender as marked on national ID card don not conform to the quarantine schedule[43]. These gender-based lockdown schedules should urgently be lifted as they go against equality and non-discrimination principles aprotected under the international and regional human rights law[44].

An increase in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric of blaming the LGBTI+ community for the Covid-19 pandemic are reported in Iraq, Israel, Turkey and Caribbean Cayman Islands[45]. It is especially worrisome that this rhetoric is voiced by well-known clerics, legislators, and officials whose power and publicity may incite hate crimes and attacks against LGBTI+ community. There are also reports of police or local officials using COVID-19 directives to attack and humiliate LGBTI+ individuals and organizations, for instance, in the Philippines and Uganda[46]. These dangerous incidents demonstrate the need for oversight and accountability of law enforcement to prevent abuse of state power and ensure respect and protection of people’s human rights and dignity during the Covid-19 crisis.

Conclusion

Covid-19 pandemic deepens already existing gender inequalities and further impedes women’s and LGBTIs’ access to human rights. On the other hand, it provides the opportunity to rethink and reshape the structures, norms, assumptions that our current societies are built on. We can turn this crisis into an opportunity to drive a transformative change for more equal, inclusive and sustainable societies. This can only be achieved by putting women and other discriminated people at the center and addressing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerabilities while designing and implementing the response and recovery efforts. Planning and investments should prioritize improving our public health, caring and social security systems, eradicating poverty, providing shelter, and ensuring food security and access to safe and clean water for all including the most vulnerable. By doing so, we can achieve rapid recovery from this crisis and also increase the resilience of our societies for similar risks in the future.

[1] Olga Bezbozhna, COVID-19: Is It Gender-Blind? Shall The Response Be Gender-Blind Too? https://rwi.lu.se/2020/04/covid-19-is-it-gender-blind/

[2] Titan M. Alon, et. al. 2020 The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality https://www.nber.org/papers/w26947

[3] The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) 2020, Women Lost More Jobs than Men in almost all Sectors of the Economy https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/QF-Jobs-Day-April-FINAL.pdf

[4] ILO (April 2020) Social Protection Monitor: Social Protection Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis around the World https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—soc_sec/documents/publication/wcms_741212.pdf

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_626831.pdf

[6] P. 14 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_626831.pdf

[7] Emily Peck (10 April 2020) The Economic Devastation Of COVID-19 Is Hitting Women Particularly Hard, Huffington Post https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-coronavirus-lost-jobs_n_5e90a363c5b685fbc7d4a557

[8] National Domestic Workers Alliance (April 2020) Coronavirus’ Economic Impact on Domestic Workers https://domesticworkers.org/sites/default/files/Coronavirus_Report_4_8_20.pdf

[9] UN World Food Programme Chief warns of hunger pandemic as COVID-19 spreads (21 April 2020) https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-hunger-pandemic-covid-19-spreads-statement-un-security-council

[10] International Labor Organization (ILO). Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work. 2018. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_633135.pdf

[11] CARE and the International Rescue Committee. Global Rapid Gender Analysis for COVID-19. March 2020. https://www.careinternational.org/files/files/Global_RGA_COVID_RDM_3_31_20_FINAL.pdf

[12] UNESCO (2020) COVID-19 Impact on Education https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/

[13] Titan M. Alon, et. al. 2020 The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality, p.1 https://www.nber.org/papers/w26947

[14] https://n2r4h9b5.stackpathcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/cweee_covid_and_wee_brief_final.pdf

[15] https://thelifeofasinglemom.com/single-mother-statistics-parent/

[16] UN HRC A/68/293 Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Ms. Maria Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona on unpaid care work and women’s human rights (2013) presented to the 68th Session of HRC General Assembly https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N13/422/71/PDF/N1342271.pdf

[17] UN HRC A/68/293 Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Ms. Maria Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona on unpaid care work and women’s human rights (2013) presented to the 68th Session of HRC General Assembly, para. 92. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N13/422/71/PDF/N1342271.pdf

[18] Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed and Ramya Subrahmanian (April 2020) Caring in the time of COVID-19: Gender, unpaid care work and social protection https://blogs.unicef.org/evidence-for-action/caring-in-the-time-of-covid-19-gender-unpaid-care-work-and-social-protection/

[19] UN Secretary-General’s policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women (April 2020) https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en.pdf?la=en&vs=1406

[20] UN Women Policy Brief on COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (2020) https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006

[21] Guardian (22 April 2020) ‘Every abuser is more volatile’: the truth behind the shocking rise of domestic violence killings’ https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/apr/22/every-abuser-is-more-volatile-the-truth-behind-the-shocking-rise-of-domestic-violence-killings?fbclid=IwAR2a5aZKX5W1IR9U4–V6dXtI2KBpeDZmC3XdKWOUkVBLIjrvPLLJtVQmsQ

[22] 2020 March Report of We Will End Femicide Platform http://kadincinayetlerinidurduracagiz.net/veriler/2905/2020-march-report-of-we-will-end-femicide-platform

[23] Covid-19 Issue Brief by Human Rights Campaign Foundation (2020) https://assets2.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/COVID19-IssueBrief-032020-FINAL.pdf?_ga=2.39942050.1437746490.1587027817-2141892123.1587027817

[24] LBTI Caucus Statement in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic (2020) https://ilga.org/lbti-caucus-covid19-statement

[25] UN Women Policy Brief on COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (2020), p.6. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006

[26] Ivana Kottasová and Valentina Di Donato, CNN, ‘Women are using code words at pharmacies to escape domestic violence during lockdown’ (6 April 2020) https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/02/europe/domestic-violence-coronavirus-lockdown-intl/index.html

[27] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8152425/Police-ask-carers-supermarket-delivery-drivers-look-signs-domestic-abuse-coronavirus.html

[28] UN Women Policy Brief on COVID-19 and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (2020), p.6. https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006

[29] Coronavirus: Sex offenders and domestic abusers in Turkey could be released under draft measures (27 March 2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/coronavirus-turkey-sex-offenders-prison-domestic-abuse-a9429151.html. See also https://www.kadinininsanhaklari.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/TurkeyStatement_VAWpenal-execution-bill-.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0T63TUHwvCoRrd8xgQqPPZbDj35W7vEay3NtEgFRDeHYJRtQ_G6zwgGlY

[30] Jaime Todd-Gher & Payal K Shah (2020): Abortion in the context of COVID-19: a human rights imperative, Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/26410397.2020.1758394

[31] UN Human Rights Committee, General comment No. 36 (2018) on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CCPR/CCPR_C_GC_36.pdf

[32] https://www.aclu.org/news/reproductive-freedom/defying-medical-experts-lawmakers-are-weaponizing-covid-19-to-restrict-abortion-access/

[33] https://medyascope.tv/2020/04/10/koronavirus-gunlerinde-kurtaj-uygulamalari-insanlar-karantinadayken-cinsel-aktivite-artiyor-kurtaj-yaptirmak-isteyenlerin-sayisinda-artis-yasanabilir/

[34] https://www.mariestopes.org/covid-19

[35] https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/medical-management-abortion/en/

[36] https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311314/WHO-HIS-HWF-Gender-WP1-2019.1-eng.pdf

[37] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/women-female-leadership-gender-coronavirus-covid19-response/

[38] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-ppe-women-wrong-size-doctors-nurses-uk-cases-a9476766.html

[39] https://www.fastcompany.com/90151045/the-dangerous-problem-of-gender-bias-in-healthcare-design

[40] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-ppe-women-wrong-size-doctors-nurses-uk-cases-a9476766.html

[41] http://s3.amazonaws.com/theirworld-site-resources/Reports/Theirworld-39-million-girls-at-risk.-Are-humanitarian-response-doing-enough.pdf

[42] https://www.unicef.org/media/media_92884.html

[43] Panama’s coronavirus gender curfew sidelines transgender people https://www.dw.com/en/panamas-coronavirus-gender-curfew-sidelines-transgender-people/a-53227815

[44] Manuella Libardi (21 April 2020) The danger of being transgender in Latin America in times of quarantine, Open Democracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/danger-being-transgender-latin-america-quarantine/

[45] OHCHR Policy Brief on Covid-19 and the Human Rights of LGBTI People (April 2020) https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/LGBT/LGBTIpeople.pdf. Turkey’s top religious official once again targets LGBT individuals (2020) https://www.duvarenglish.com/domestic/2020/04/25/turkeys-top-religious-official-once-again-targets-lgbt-individuals/ https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2020/03/28/Coronavirus-Iraqi-Shia-cleric-blames-gay-marriage-forcoronavirus

https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2020/03/rabbi-blames-coronavirus-pride-parades/

https://www.caymancompass.com/2020/02/04/mla-eden-calls-earthquake-coronavirus-warnings-over-gay-lifestyle/?fbclid=IwAR26-RuhU8LueGkCF8RRiqwitQLvuAhrWMMdcdpEcfvgmjQXRJnGIIe0hK8

[46] Ryan Thoreson (April 2020) Philippines Uses Humiliation as COVID Curfew Punishment  https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/08/philippines-uses-humiliation-covid-curfew-punishment