On International Women’s Day, three of A&O’s pro bono partner organisations look at the impact of Covid-19 on women’s rights, as this year’s campaign #ChooseToChallenge calls on people to challenge gender bias and inequality, as well as celebrate women’s achievements.
Sara Bowcutt from Women for Women International; Siri May from the Center for Reproductive Rights; and Rosalind Bragg from Maternity Action discuss how the global pandemic is disproportionately affecting women around the world and what response is needed.
In April last year, in the early stages of the Covid-19 health crisis, the UN Secretary General issued a briefing on the multiple ways the pandemic was impacting women: “Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the effects of Covid-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.” Nearly a year later, the situation is no better.
“Covid-19 is undoubtedly having a very gendered impact,” says Sara Bowcutt from Women for Women International. “It is exposing women to greater health risks, threatening livelihoods, exacerbating gender-based violence and forcing women and children into extreme poverty – particularly those living in the most marginalised communities.”
Health risks – and responsibilities
Globally, women perform over 75% of unpaid care work – more in countries with failing healthcare systems – and in many countries women occupy the majority of frontline public health roles, putting them at the centre of the Covid-19 crisis.
“Women are carrying the responsibility for prevention and treatment within homes and communities, while at the same time facing a greater risk of infection,” Sara says, “especially in difficult situations like conflict and humanitarian settings, where access to information, resources, health and social services are limited.”
As the world’s poorest countries divert medical resources to the Covid-19 response, women are suffering from cuts to other healthcare provisions too, particularly sexual and reproductive health services.
“These are essential and life-saving services,” says Siri May from the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Restricting access can lead to increased rates of unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion, maternal death and low birthweight, miscarriage, premature labour, sexually transmitted infections and child early and enforced marriage – all of which place additional strains on healthcare systems and have a profound impact on women’s and girls’ lives.”
Access to sexual and reproductive health rights is not only an issue in developing countries – as research by the Center shows, some governments and anti-abortion groups are exploiting the global public health crisis to create further barriers or eliminate access to safe abortions. “Several states in the U.S., for example, have tried to impose severe limits on safe abortion care,” Siri says.
Even the vaccine roll-out reveals gaps for women. As Ros Bragg from Maternity Action says: “Pregnant women were classed as a vulnerable group early on in the pandemic but there has been scant research into whether vaccines are safe for them, meaning that millions of pregnant or breastfeeding women around the world are left out of the programme indefinitely.”
Alongside a mounting health crisis is the rise of gender-based violence in virtually every country. “This pandemic compounds existing discrimination already experienced by women and girls,” says Siri. “Women are being locked inside with increasingly violent abusers at the same time as vital support services are removed. It’s a terrifying situation – and one that’s very hard to respond to as some women become increasingly isolated during the pandemic.”
Threat to livelihoods
The economic effects of the pandemic are also having a disproportionate impact on women who, even in more developed countries, are often doing low paid work, in roles that cannot be done remotely and in sectors hardest hit by lockdowns, such as hospitality.
Calls to Maternity Action’s Advice Line have “exploded”, Ros says, with nearly 30% of women reporting Covid-related issues – the vast majority in low income roles. The demand is so great that Maternity Action has launched a new email service, supported by volunteer lawyers from A&O and other firms, to respond to the greater need.
“More waves of redundancies are coming, and from what we’ve seen over the past year pregnant women and new mothers are at much higher risk,” says Ros. “The number of women who’ve already lost their jobs is astounding.”
For women in developing countries – even more so in conflict and humanitarian settings – fewer if any employment protections exist.
As Sara says: “Women have the least education and most childcare responsibilities, so are often in informal jobs with no financial security. Our programme equips women to earn money by teaching them marketable job skills, as well as providing business training to turn their chosen skill into a stable income – but they can’t do that in a lockdown situation.”
Understanding and exercising rights
The impact of Covid-19 on women’s employment is not confined to those in low income work, but people in low skilled sectors are more easily replaceable and have little negotiating power or ability to challenge employers. This raises a broader point about women’s lack of power to influence the decision-making process during the pandemic.
“Women should be a central consideration for governments formulating their response to this crisis,” says Sara. “Women know what is needed within their communities but their voices aren’t being heard.”
One example Ros gives in the UK is the failure of the Government’s furlough scheme – for those unable to work during lockdown – to fully consider women on maternity leave. “It was such an obvious gap in the financial support package – it just needed one person round the table to think of it but nobody did.”
A key element of the response to this crisis is therefore ensuring women know their legal rights and are able to exercise them.
A&O associate Arpita Ashok has been providing pro bono support to the Center for Reproductive Rights for three years, most recently looking at how to improve accountability for protecting women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in humanitarian and conflict settings, including by engaging with bodies like the UN Security Council.
“Legal mechanisms do exist to protect women on paper,” Arpita says, “but they are often completely unavailable in practice. It is therefore crucial to educate women directly about what their rights are – sometimes women believe, for example, that harmful and illegal practices are permitted, even required, by the law because that’s the way they are presented by individuals and institutions.”
Siri agrees. “We find that providing information to women and girls about their rights in specific areas can facilitate communities speaking up together. Supported in the right way, that can be very powerful.”
A top down and bottom up response
Women for Women International is also taking a community-led approach to the adverse effects of the pandemic. The A&O Foundation has just awarded a three-year grant to support a project to digitise women’s Village and Savings Associations in Rwanda.
“This will educate the women about new mobile and financial technologies,” Sara says, “thereby enabling them to seize income-generating opportunities, save money more strategically and make long-term plans for themselves and their families.”
While a community-level response is crucial, so too is ensuring the wider responsibility falls squarely on governments and decision makers.
For this, evidence-based campaigning is key. Maternity Action has collected “unambiguous evidence”, as Ros says, on the scale of maternity discrimination in the UK, which is bringing in support from prominent organisations like the Royal College of Midwives for better protections. “We now need to make sure action is taken quickly so that we’re not chasing changes to law once the damage has already been done.”
Collecting data, however, presents its own challenges. “Policy-making in a pandemic must be rapid and address the needs of the most marginalised women,” Arpita says, “but it can be difficult to gather the data required to support that advocacy, for example in extremely rural areas where women are very isolated or in conflict settings with large numbers of migrant women.”
Sara agrees. “We urgently need an approach to this global pandemic that is coordinated and puts gender at its core, with decision makers responding to the realities women in diverse contexts face around the world.”
“This is really a question of what society values,” Siri adds. “There is a role for everyone to play – governments, businesses and individuals, particularly with the theme for International Women’s Day being #ChooseToChallenge – so that women don’t lose what we have worked so hard for decades to gain.”