Women wear face masks and queue to buy low-cost groceries at a government foods stock center in Banda Aceh on May 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Chaideer Mahyuddin

While the policeman was patrolling the street outside, the abuser waited with a whip at home. The lockdown has been this living nightmare for many women globally with the Covid-19 pandemic hitting us hard.

With courtrooms reducing operations and civil-society organizations responsible for frontline support to victims going missing, women have been left alone to negotiate with their unreasonable abusers. For many women, the extended lockdown has been like a never-ending wait for parole.

UN Women Report on the gendered impact of Covid-19 captures some crucial insights from Palestine. A young female survivor of abuse in Gaza described her life as being in a “perpetual quarantine that others have only recently witnessed.”  

In 2019, 243 million women and girls across the world were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). If this number was the population of a country, it would be bigger than Brazil.

Three months of the pandemic has ballooned this number with countries such as Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, India, the US, the UK, Singapore and Spain seeing a rise in domestic-violence cases. Respect, a national domestic-violence charity in the UK, saw calls, e-mails and website visits increase by 97%, 185% and 581% respectively.

Countries, regardless of their gross domestic product or level of development, have recounted the same abusive treatment toward women during the lockdown. Given that these are just the reported cases, this may be only the tip of the iceberg.

The economic vulnerability of women in the developing world adds insult to injury. Large-scale unemployment has led to an explosion of poverty, leaving vulnerable groups such as female-headed households, economically weak women and refugees exposed to trafficking.

International trafficking experts, who have responses designed to address trafficking driven by conflict or natural disasters, have been scrambling to tackle a worldwide trafficking problem. In Ghana, civil-society organizations on the front line reported that economically distressed families are already being sought out, offering US$5 for the sale of children, forcing women and children into risky trades such as prostitution.

Pandemics have clearly demonstrated that it is women that face the brunt of the outcomes when societal systems fail. The already high gender divide in technology and education will only worsen after the pandemic ends.

If there is anything we can draw from the Ebola epidemic, it is the direct impact it had on the lives of adolescent girls. After the Ebola crisis, school closures in Sierra Leone saw a huge rise in adolescent pregnancy, creating permanent barriers to a girl’s education, leading to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage.

In countries where the digital divide is wider, the prospects for educating girls is bleaker. The tech gender gap is weakest in South Asia, where women are 57% less likely to use the Internet and 219 million women are completely unconnected.

In countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh where access to mobile phones and the Internet remains a challenge for women, the gender gap in education will only worsen. The suicide of a 14-year-old Merit Scholar in India over her disappointment in not being able to access online classes is testimony to the trauma faced by young girls who feel hopeless about their futures. 

The long-term impact of domestic violence, the burden of care work, vulnerability to trafficking and barriers to education have widened the goalpost of gender equality. Reduced funding for humanitarian work globally has curtailed the ability of grassroots organizations to continue to work. The disproportionate burden of the pandemic borne by women cannot be overlooked, and should act as a wake-up call to society to act now.

To ensure that decades of work toward equality is not undone by the challenges posed by the pandemic, governments all over the world must recognize the gendered nature of policy consequences.

In a future that looks more digitally reliant, ensuring affordable access to information and communication technology is crucial to enabling girls’ and women’s access and use of digital technologies. The policymaking exercise thus needs to be able to identify patterns of vulnerabilities that cut across sectors, harming women and girls in various ways. 

The irony of women’s experience through this pandemic is that 70% of health workers globally are women. The foot soldiers handling the pandemic are also the ones whose own reproductive, sexual and mental health is being violated with each passing day. We therefore need a multidimensional approach to addressing gender inequality.

A carefully considered approach will go a long way in tackling these issues in a purposive manner and would serve as a reminder of the tireless contribution of female health workers in service of society in history’s darkest hours. 

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Ishani Tikku

Ishani Tikku is a student of public policy at the University of Chicago.