Women & Girls in Crises
Editor at The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House
Women & Girls in Crises
One hundred years ago, the last global health crisis swept across the world, killing at least 50 million people. One hundred years on, and more than 6 million people have died from the coronavirus crisis so far, transforming all of our lives.
But some have been affected more than others. While more men have died from COVID-19, women have been disproportionately impacted by job losses, domestic violence and more. Indeed, the inequalities that face women and girls, including underrepresentation in the global workforce, have intensified as a result of the pandemic.
Global health crises affect men and women differently but it has seldom been addressed. The coronavirus crisis has reportedly set women back decades as women have had to balance working from home with increased domestic duties. The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed mothers in the UK spent less time working while more time on domestic duties during the pandemic compared to fathers. This trend was also seen in young people with girls bearing the burden of more housework than boys.
Women have also been the worst-hit in terms of job losses. The loss of women from the workforce was called a ‘national emergency’ by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, after 2.5 million women lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce in 2020, with 35 per cent remaining unemployed a year on. Similarly, in India, women were twice as likely than men to lose their jobs in 2020 while, in the UK, under the national government’s furlough scheme, furloughed women were more likely to be furloughed for longer compared with furloughed men.
There was also a sharp increase in domestic violence during the pandemic of which women make up nearly 80 per cent of the victims. Mexico, for example, saw almost 1,000 women murdered in three months alone. Indeed, experts who have studied the social impact of the Ebola and Zika viruses, and are similarly studying the social impact of the coronavirus, warn that the effects of the pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on women for years to come.
But this is all in addition to what has been described as the ‘Colour of COVID-19’. Women of colour, particularly from low-income backgrounds, are often faced with the interconnected challenges of gender, racial and economic inequality and the pandemic has increased this further. Indeed, racial inequality embedded in the global health crisis, and its ensuing economic effects, played a role in driving the protests in the US, and around the world, following the death of George Floyd.
However, though women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, they can also be critical to recovering from it. Many of the countries with the strongest response to the coronavirus crisis have been led by women, with an analysis of 194 countries revealing that infection rates, as well as fatality rates, at the outset of the pandemic were lower in countries with women leaders.
Furthermore, research has shown that empowering women, such as addressing the gender pay gap, if made a critical part of recovery from the pandemic, has the potential to dramatically boost the global economy. In fact, global gross domestic product is forecast to be $28 trillion more if women participated in the workforce at the same rate as men.
Indeed, governments around the world have been developing policies and legislation to this end. Hawaii, for example, has developed a ‘feminist’ post-COVID-19 economic recovery plan – a first for the US and the world – which redresses the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women. Meanwhile, countries, including Canada, Argentina and countries across West Africa, have also introduced gender-specific policies to alleviate the effects of the pandemic on women too.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has described inequality as an issue that ‘defines our time’, and as such, addressing all forms of inequality – including gender, racial and economic inequality – must be a key part of rebuilding from the coronavirus crisis which has deepened these inequalities further.
But, with crises continuing across the world, women and girls are facing a future with more challenges. From the conflict in Ethiopia, where violence against women and girls has been reportedly used as a weapon of war, to the war in Ukraine, where the spectre of violence against women and girls looms over the more than 5 million refugees who have fled since the war began, women and girls are among the greatest casualties of crises.
Throughout history, humans have endured global health crises, but scientists warn that humanity’s treatment of nature must change or there could be more pandemics like the coronavirus in the future. With record-numbers of displaced people, and longer-lasting conflicts, safeguarding women and girls, and empowering them, will be critical to responding to crises like the pandemic in the future. If so, next time, women and girls can be central to stopping them.
Gitika Bhardwaj works as an Editor at The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.
She has interviewed experts from around the world including former prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, and former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, as part of a series focusing on women in international affairs.
Gitika regularly speaks at events and conferences and mentors young people from diverse backgrounds with an interest in international affairs.
She is currently undertaking a postgraduate diploma with the National Council for the Training of Journalists and has a Master’s degree in European Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Bachelor’s degree in History from Queen Mary, University of London.