The Gender Dimension of a Pandemic - Bueboard by Pilar Preciousa Pajayon-Berse

October 13, 2020

Every crisis affects women and men differently. This difference is more pronounced in cases of emergencies, whether driven by natural disasters, armed conflicts, economic crisis, or health-related outbreaks.  One difference lies in a more heightened occurrence of patterns of gender-based violence on women, as well as children, exacerbated by conditions that challenge whatever safeguards are put in place to protect vulnerable groups. UNICEF (2018) reported that during public health outbreaks such as in the case of the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa from 2014-2016, it is women and children that showed susceptibility to being at a greater risk of exploitation and sexual abuse. Thus, the gender dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be undermined because while the virus itself does not recognize gender, its impact on women, particularly women from poor and low-income generating households, puts them in an even far greater risk than other vulnerable groups.
 
Women and economic insecurity
 
The pandemic confronts the precarious state of women’s economic security on a global scale. According to the recent publication of UN Women (2020), women working in the informal economy saw their income fell by 60% at the start of the pandemic and that in the Asia-Pacific alone, women’s working time in a formal workplace setting showed a bigger drop compared to men. The risk for women losing their jobs is 19% higher than their male counterparts in highly feminized sectors such as domestic work, hospitality, and food services (UN Women, 2020). For women, COVID-19 is more than a global health crisis. It has become a source of economic insecurity for them as economic availability of resources becomes limited. 
 
In the Philippines, while there is limited information on a more current employment rate by gender, a 2012 report by the Asian Development Bank indicates that the employment rate for women (46.7%) accounts for just two thirds of the employment rate for men (72.9%). This gender gap in the labor employment indicates, among other analyses, a level of inequality that can be addressed by employment-led economic bridging. However, with the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on the economic performance of countries worldwide, including that of the Philippines’, the country’s unemployment rate surged to 17.7% (7.3 million) by April 2020. Filipino women make up a big percent of the informal sector as well as the service, tourism, and retail industries, and the disrupted operations of these sectors further contributed to their diminished earning capacity. As some industries closed down because of the stringent lockdowns especially between March to May, the economic security of many workers were compromised, and along with it, the rise in women’s susceptibility to abuse.
 
Pandemic’s economic downturn and lockdowns vis-à-vis women’s susceptibility to domestic abuse
 
With the economic downturn that is contingent on the state-imposed mobility restrictions that vary from low to high quarantine classifications, many were let go by their respective employers as companies shut down or chose to operate with a reduced number of people. Some who were not let go from their places of employment, but could not travel due to mobility restrictions, have to endure a ‘no-work, no-pay’ scheme. In both instances, staying at home is the only option and loss of livelihood is the immediate burden. While staying at home during the lockdowns in the first months of the quarantine was crucial for the government’s attempt to flatten the curve of positive virus cases and lessen the population’s vulnerability to contracting the disease, it opened up to different form of vulnerability for many others. For women who are already in violent households, being on a lockdown for prolonged periods of time with their abusers made them even more vulnerable to domestic abuse, on top of their increasing economic insecurity. 
 
In June, the Philippine National Police recorded 4,260 cases of violence against women and children since March when the enhanced community quarantine was first implemented. Of these cases, 2,183 were violations against women (Cabico, 2020). Women’s group Gabriela blames the lockdowns for the rise in abuses, factoring in poverty and hunger, as well as poor access to social protection. Plan International Philippines country program manager Selena Fortich mentions that based on past pandemics, emergencies tend to negatively affect women and children as they become trapped in the same location as their abusers. 
 
Poor women become poorer, vulnerable becomes more vulnerable
 
The death of Michelle Silvertino, single mother and domestic worker who was found unconscious under a footbridge in Pasay City while waiting for a bus ride back to her hometown in Camarines Sur, reflects the situation of other women in the same predicament, particularly in the Philippines, who continue to overcome the impacts of this pandemic on their livelihoods and on their overall well-being. The layers of health, economic, mental, and physical insecurities that women have to overcome during emergencies or pandemics are more pronounced among the poor, as seen in the case of Silvertino. 
 
There are other challenges too, of gender-based violence shifting to a different platform such as online pornography both of women and children. Such exploitation is a statement about increased economic difficulties which continue to push vulnerable groups towards unwarranted exploitation. Without access to different forms of social protection that could cushion the blow of COVID-19 on their lives, the platforms where women can experience abuse expand.
 
Challenge of keeping gender equality in a pandemic
 
Women are naturally strong and resilient, and have shown transformative roles in the face of disasters like in the case of women leaders who emerged from the tragedy of typhoon Haiyan and have since lead their villages toward recovery (World Vision, 2014). However, every new disaster, crisis, or pandemic brings with it a new set of challenges that women have to overcome. It does not help that the burden of caring for the family traditionally falls on the shoulders of women. Without any mechanisms to support and protect women as they support those around them, the disproportionate impact of pandemics on women is intensified  The government plays a critical role in ensuring that gender equality is promoted and abuses or discrimination of women are kept at bay. Acknowledging that emergencies such as pandemics could worsen the existing inequalities and vulnerabilities experienced by women is the initial step into mainstreaming and promoting a more gender-responsive approach to COVID-19 response. In the Philippines, the increased number of violence against women as well as children during the first few months of the lockdown came as an unintended consequence while efforts were being done to curb the increase in infections. While unintended, the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological threats to affected women are just as real. 
 
Moving forward, offering better safety nets such as better reporting and monitoring schemes and strict implementation of existing laws against violence on women and children, for the economic security and protection of women against abuse is as critical as putting an end to COVID-19.
 
Pilar Pajayon-Berse, PhD. is an Assistant Professor at the Political Science department of Ateneo de Manila University.