Female frontline workers in China 'typical of coronavirus economic and domestic burden on women'

The Covid-19 outbreak is exacerbating gender inequalities and discrimination facing women and girls in Asia and the Pacific, finds a new report by UN Women.

The report, titled “The First 100 Days of the Covid-19 Outbreak in Asia and the Pacific: A Gender Lens”, said women and girls were affected by Covid-19 disproportionately to men and boys. And they were less resilient and less able to control the effects of the outbreak.

It highlights the immediate needs of women in the context of the pandemic, including those of female health care workers and survivors of gender-based violence, as well as direct impacts related to women and girls’ unpaid care work, sexual and reproductive health and rights, interrupted access to education and unequal access to information.

Women provide most home-based care and make up most the global health workforce on the frontline of the outbreak.

Women make up more than 90 per cent of frontline health workers in Hubei province, where the outbreak was first reported, yet fewer than one in five experts who make decisions about responding to the pandemic are women, the report finds.

“In the context of Covid-19, these existing inequities mean women health workers are disproportionately exposed to infection, and are required to work longer hours, often unpaid without sick leave or isolation leave work entitlements, in under-resourced conditions, with the looming threat of being the first group laid off,” the report said.

Gender-based violence has also increased. Police records in Hubei suggested that reports of domestic violence have tripled during the pandemic, and hotlines worldwide had seen an increase in the number of calls received, the report said.

With more than 89 per cent of the world’s student population out of school due to closures, girls are benefiting less from online learning.

“Girls may be expected, due to gender norms and roles, to devote more time than boys to unpaid care work and caring for younger siblings, older populations, and those who are ill within the household rather than focusing on education,” the report said.

Similarly, women have unequal access to information, especially key messages about Covid-19.

In China, there were also signs of gender inequality during the outbreak, Xiao Meili, a Guangzhou-based feminism activist, told the South China Morning Post.

“Nurses have not received a lot of attention nor received fair pay … the increase of housework during the outbreak is also being shouldered by women,” she said.

Women were usually working from home but also had to take care of their children at the same time. Furthermore, domestic violence in China had increased and the women had limited ways of seeking help since transport had stopped.

Xiao said there needed to be more empowerment measures for women, such as equal pay, labour rights and training for community workers and police on gender equality.

“As [China] moves forward to mitigate the impact of the outbreak, we must also consider and respond to the differential needs of women, men and children in the short- and medium-term recovery actions,” Smriti Aryal, head of UN Women China, told the Post.

This included recognising that women were likely to suffer the biggest socio-economic impact as a large number of women were employed in sectors hardest hit, worked as small business owners and daily wage earners, she said.

She said it was important to recognise that women carried an unequal care burden at home. She called for stronger social services – including hotlines and counselling – as women were likely to be at risk of increased violence at home.

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