Women around the world are facing a shadow crisis amid the COVID 19 pandemic, as their workloads for both paid and unpaid labor increase dramatically.
“The COVID 19 pandemic has aggravated the existing conditions for women, who are discriminated against in all sectors,” said Dr. Beatrice Duncan, Policy Advisor, Rule of Law, UN Women, at a May 22 briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services.
Panelists at the briefing noted that the COVID crisis has both highlighted and exacerbated gender inequality around the world. They also discussed the dramatic rise of domestic violence, including abuse by adolescent children. Duncan stated that domestic violence has seen a three-fold spike in the U.S. over the past two months.
Dr. Kirsten Swinth, Professor of History at Fordham University, compared the current pandemic to the 1918 pandemic and the Great Depression, suggesting that there were lessons from both that inspired women to push forward.
“The 1918-19 flu pandemic was a huge blow to male-led modern medicine, and its faith in science to cure infectious diseases,” said Swinth. Nurses however, were valorized, because of their professionalism in providing essential care services.
Similarly, in the current pandemic, essential workers, including those on the bottom of the economic ladder are lauded as heroes for providing essential services in a time of crisis, she said.
Recognition of women’s critical role in the 1918 epidemic occurred simultaneously with suffragettes going door to door to garner support for women’s right to vote: the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Swinth also pointed to how increased social and economic burdens on women during the Great Depression helped birth a generation of women leaders who fought for cost of living issues and increased participation in labor unions.
Dr. Nicole Mason, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said women disproportionately account for the nearly 39 million people who have filed for unemployment in the last nine weeks because of their over-representation in service sector jobs which require employees to be on site, rather than working remotely. The service sector has been hit the hardest by the economic lockdown.
The U.S. Labor Department released data earlier in May, which examined unemployment claims by gender for the month of April. Unemployment rose overall from 4.4 percent to 14.7 percent. For women, unemployment rates rose to 16.2 percent versus 13.5 percent for men. In February, prior to the pandemic’s full throttle on the U.S. economy, unemployment rates for both sectors were roughly equal at 3.5 percent.
As day care centers and schools close down, women face the double burden of full-time care for their families — including home-schooling them — while also trying to hold down a full-time job. Conversely, women who have retained their service sector jobs are having to make very tough choices between working and taking care of their families, said Mason.
Women will also have a harder time economically recovering from the pandemic. “Many lost jobs will not be returning,” she said, advocating for long-term policy solutions which would help women re-enter and remain in the workforce; flexibility in schedules to address child care needs, along with work-site child care centers; paid sick leave mandated for all employers; and a universal basic income.
Dr. Estela Rivero, Research Associate with Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute for Global Development, stated that the COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated the already limited opportunities for women to gain financial independence. “Time is one of our most precious resources,” she said, and women are now forced to spend more hours doing unpaid labor compared to men.
In the U.S., her studies show that amid the pandemic women ages 30-40 spend an average of 60 hours per week in paid and unpaid labor. Men spend 57 hours, primarily in paid labor.
In Mexico, women spend 80 hours a week in paid and unpaid labor, while men spend 70 hours primarily in paid labor. If a member of the household becomes ill, women spend an additional 10 hours per week caring for sick people. Overall, women’s sleep is decreased by 5 hours.
“One positive note is this: as family members spend more time at home, they get to see what women do to keep the household running,” said Rivero, expressing hope that this will lead to a shift in attitude about the value of women’s work.
Mimi Lind, Venice Family Clinic’s Director of Behavioral Health and Domestic Violence Services, said that the rise in domestic violence during the pandemic coincides with the loss of traditional lifelines such as shelters, the court system, and health care.
Lind defined the many types of abuse, which include physical and sexual violence; forcing a victim to be financially dependent; name-calling, shaming and using social media to hold power and control over a partner or ex-partner.
Women isolated at home with an abusive partner cannot call a hotline for help because of fears that the violent domestic partner or adolescent child might overhear, resulting in increased violence. As more health care services are conducted via tele-medicine, women also lose personal access to doctors and nurses who often ask about partner abuse when a woman comes into a hospital.
Some protections do remain for women living in Los Angeles County, said Lind. Courts within the county can still provide restraining orders against the abusive partner. Additionally, some domestic violence hot-lines can provide women with vouchers which would allow her to leave an abusive situation and go to a hotel or motel temporarily.
Duncan closed the briefing by likening the pandemic to a global war. “This could be the Third World War that we are facing.” Like her fellow panelists, she looked for signs of hope in what her agency describes as “the shadow pandemic.”
“In all the wars we have faced across the years, the fatalities have mainly been men, but the consequences are born by women because women then have to manage the households.”
“Whenever we experience this kind of social change, it also comes with changes in gender relationships,” said Duncan adding: “In some cases, it allows women to advance more because they become the household heads.”