As a feminist, I like to keep a mental list of things I consider to be sexist. It is not a quick read, I imagine rather comparable to the size of the 'naughty list' that Santa has to deal with at Christmas (dare I say it, less than 100 days to go, and anyway, what else have we got to do this year)!
As somebody already jaded and well and truly sick of sexism, I was not surprised to add COVID-19 to my list. Not that men have had an easy time with COVID-19 (men make up 62% of all COVID-19 deaths) but unfortunately, in terms of the socio-economic impact, it seems that pandemics can have far-reaching and disproportionate implications for women globally. A report by the UN has raised concerns that "COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights" and has highlighted four key areas:
Increase in gender based violence
Victims have been forced to 'lockdown' with their abusers causing an increase in domestic abuse. Visits to the Refuge website are up 950% and calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline 80% higher than usual - the first six weeks of lockdown showed 4,000 domestic abuse arrests in London, a 24% increase from the previous year. The crisis is so bad that the UN has described domestic violence as the "shadow pandemic".
Those in lesser-paid jobs, insecure jobs and living closer to the poverty line with little or no savings are more likely to struggle in pandemics, and are more likely to be women. Roseann Kelly, Chief Executive of Women in Business has discussed the expected redundancies in the retail and hospitality sectors, jobs traditionally held by women. At the start of lockdown, the Institute of Fiscal Studies warned the lockdown would hit the lower paid, young women hardest, who were seven times more likely to work in sectors worst hit by shutdown, including beauty and hairdressing services. Likewise, the Women’s Budget Group suggests the pandemic is hitting BAME women disproportionately hard, with nearly a quarter of BAME mothers reporting that they were struggling to feed their children. Charities like Every Month and Bloody Good Period, who help those without the financial means to purchase their own sanitary products (so called 'period poverty'), have reported an increase in demand.
With the closures of schools and care services, the responsibilities for looking after children or elderly relatives tends to fall on females of the family. Trying to balance the needs of children and work while locked down at home has left most of us (male carers included in this category) feeling exhausted. Carers UK estimates that around 4.5 million people have had to become unpaid carers for sick or disabled relatives during the pandemic and that the majority of them will be women. Researchers from the University of Sussex, meanwhile found that 70% of mothers reported being completely or mostly responsible for home schooling and 67% of working women feeling like the “default” parent most or all of the time. Joeli Brearley, of the campaign group 'Pregnant Then Screwed' recently found that more than half of pregnant women and mothers surveyed expected the pandemic to damage their careers.
Reallocation of health services away from reproductive health services
Despite warnings from the World Health Organisation, many governments worldwide have classified reproductive health services as 'non-essential' – Brazil closed contraception services, for example. This decision not only denied women access to time-sensitive and potentially lifesaving services, but also further distanced them from already difficult to access sexual and reproductive health care. The UN Population Fund predicts there could be up to 7 million unintended pregnancies worldwide because of the crisis, with potentially thousands of deaths from unsafe abortion and complicated births due to inadequate access to healthcare.
We really didn’t need any more reasons to hate COVID-19, but here we are!
There has been an effort to readdress this balance – and it is great to see some 'good news' stories on the matter, for example:
- St Catharine's College at Cambridge University has used some of its empty rooms to provide refuge to women escaping domestic abuse.
- Volunteers at Women for Refugee Women have been regularly hosting telephone calls to around 300 refugee and asylum-seeking women to stay connected to them during lockdown.
- One 102 year old Italian woman survived COVID-19 and has been nicknamed 'The Immortal'. She was born in 1917, she lived through the Spanish influenza pandemic that killed millions of people. What a woman!
- Lockdown has given some women the time to start their own business ventures, including Natalie James who has started Tingle, a beauty subscription service, Mya Wander who started MJ Eats, a Caribbean soul food takeaway service and Caroline Haegeman, who started Box42, a date night subscription box.
For some women, lockdown may have a silver-lining. It has normalised working from home, engaged fathers more in domestic life and prompted some couples to rethink who does what around the house. On that note, if anybody is looking for some tips on domestic bliss, the Malaysian government has published some guidance on "How to keep your husband happy in lockdown". Posters displayed in the country included advice such as; giggling coyly instead of nagging, not allowing your appearance to slip and making sure the home is clean! One even suggested women should avoid being sarcastic if their partner was not helping with the housework. (The Women's Centre for Change campaigned about these posters, which have since been removed).
COVID-19 has caused us to regress in so many ways – we must continue the fight for gender parity in these difficult times.
What can I do to help?
- Reading about the issues and raising awareness is a positive start.
- Donate to charities who are supporting women through this time.
- Offer to help those who may be struggling with caring responsibilities.
Leah Glover is an Associate in the London Banking Team. She is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, and for three years sat as Chair of the Law Society's Women Lawyers' Division (the organisation that represents the 80,000 women solicitors in England and Wales).