A Pandemic of Inequality: How COVID-19 Threatens Women’s Rights

By Jessica Sutton.

New Zealand has entered its first week of a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the virulent COVID-19 virus. COVID-19 appears to affect women less seriously than men in terms of physical effects. However, the burdens of the social crisis caused by COVID-19, increasing rates of gender-based violence, and the economic crash which is imminent, may be disastrous for women’s equality globally. The COVID-19 situation may be responsible for a huge spike in femicides in various affected countries, and for forcing an unprecedented number of women back into domestic servitude and economic inequality. 

COVID-19 and domestic violence

Experts are unanimous in warning governments that COVID-19 lockdowns, although advisable to prevent the spread of the disease, are likely to result in increased domestic violence and femicides. Globally, 137 women are killed each day by an intimate partner.[1] This statistic may increase drastically when women are faced with several weeks confined to their home with their abusers. Rates of domestic violence in France have already risen by 30% during their lockdown. Many factors contribute to the increase in gender-based violence during this time.

First, this is a time of unprecedented stress, both emotional and financial. Families in poor socio-economic circumstances will be severely impacted by pandemic job losses. There is a clear link between increased family violence and times of stress, as abusers lash out with more frequency.[2] Further, the conditions of a lockdown require the victim and the abuser to be in close contact, with children at home rather than at day-care or school. This means an abuser is more likely to become frustrated with crying or noisy children, and physically abuse their partner or the children themselves. Finally, as women may be expected to take on the added domestic pressures of the pandemic, abusive partners may blame them for perceived failings, such as upset children, or inadequate meals, and become violent.[3]

Further, mental violence may also increase during this time. Women in toxic relationships are particularly vulnerable to coercive control during the pandemic. The stringent requirements of social distancing and self-isolation mean that women in abusive relationships are isolated from extended family and friends, and left alone with their abusers. Abusers may take this time to assert further control over their victim, free from interferences from the victim’s family and friends.[4]

New Zealand has, at least, acknowledged the danger faced by women in situations of violence during the lockdown. Domestic violence charities have been classified as essential services. Women’s Refuge and Shine Helpline will continue to function, albeit with some modifications in order to reduce spread of the disease. The government is also considering extra funding to allow the charities to continue to provide their services in the face of increased demand.[5] However, other countries have failed to make the link between enforced enclosure of families, and potentially life-threatening violence. France’s domestic violence helplines have been functioning at a limited level since the COVID-19 crisis accelerated, meaning many women are unable to gain the help that they desperately need.[6]

Women and the COVID-19 Social Crisis

The majority of people taking on caring roles during this crisis, both professionally and in the home, are women. Women make up 70% of our front-line workers, as nurses, midwives, and other medical professionals.[7] Women are three times as likely as men to engage in unpaid domestic labour at home.[8] Therefore, as women are more likely to be caring for people ill with COVID-19 within the home and elsewhere, they are at a higher risk of infection.

Even if the people within a woman’s ‘bubble’ do not fall ill,[9] new burdens fall on families during quarantine, which are borne mostly by female family members. Home schooling children has become a necessity in New Zealand as of last week. People over 70 are at particular risk, and will need groceries delivered to them. The un-asked question is, who is to do this caregiving?

Unfortunately, the likelihood is that this caring burden will predominately fall on women. Many factors feed into this result. One is a practical problem between partners – if one partner has to stop work to care for the children, who is the logical choice? As women continue to be underpaid in most industries, and are more likely to be in informal positions, often the female partner appears to be the ‘logical’ person to step down and become the caregiver. Another issue is that societal expectations make it easier for women to cease work for caregiving reasons, compared to a man doing the same.[10]  

The situation is worse for single mothers facing the pandemic. The majority of single parent families globally are headed by women.[11] As schools and day-care facilities shut, single mothers are forced to work from home (if they are able to), and home school children at the same time. Greater obstacles exist for women classed as essential workers in this time of crisis. If a mother must continue to go to work, and thereby aid and protect the whole country, she needs to find a substitute caregiver for her children. Grandparents are the most at risk of COVID-19 infection. Leaving children with friends or extended family creates a larger social ‘bubble’, and increases the risk of infection. There are no easy choices for women in this position. 

Women and the COVID-19 Health Crisis

Women, like everyone else, will suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelming our healthcare systems. Preventable conditions may cause thousands of deaths as the hospitals are flooded with COVID-19 cases. Pregnant women in particular will suffer from resources being diverted to allay the effects of the pandemic. During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone between 2013-2016, more women died in childbirth complications than were victims of Ebola.[12] New Zealand women who had plans of giving birth in hospital are now having to re-evaluate as our health care system scrambles to prepare for an overload of COVID-19 patients. Home births may be impractical or impossible for some women, yet now their options are extremely limited.[13] Other issues lie in the reduction in access to contraceptives during the pandemic.

In short, although resources will be diverted away from all non-COVID patients in the coming months, women suffer the additional burdens of increased caring duties, a continued and exacerbated wage gap, and lack of access to daily necessities such as contraception.

What can we do?

Pandemic policy makers need to include a gendered perspective. In New Zealand’s Epidemic Reponse Committee, women are outnumbered 7 to 4. In the USA, 90% of the people in the COVID-19 policy team are men, while 100% of the people in the UK COVID-19 policy team are men.[14] The risk is that the policies created will not consider that women and minorities may be disproportionately impacted by the social impacts of the pandemic. Their policies are therefore predicated on a male default perspective, and accordingly do not meet the needs of women and minorities.

Domestic violence services are essential, and need funding. Pregnant women should not be abandoned. Every death from domestic violence during this crisis is a preventable death. Every death from childbirth complications is a preventable death. Women doing unpaid labour at home, and professional work on our frontlines, deserve recognition and sufficient financial support. Moving away from the male experience of crises as the “default position” from which policies are formulated, means crisis response can become truly equitable, a result in which all governments should have a vested interest.


Women’s Refuge: https://womensrefuge.org.nz/make-a-donation/

Shine Domestic Violence Helpline: https://www.2shine.org.nz/shop/donations

[1] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/3/statement-ed-phumzile-covid-19-women-front-and-centre

[2] http://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20200326-coronavirus-domestic-violence-gender-perspectives

[3] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/24-03-2020/where-do-domestic-violence-victims-go-during-the-covid-19-lockdown/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/feminism-womens-rights-coronavirus-covid19/608302/

[5] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12319646

[6] http://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20200326-coronavirus-domestic-violence-gender-perspectives

[7] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/3/statement-ed-phumzile-covid-19-women-front-and-centre

[8] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/3/news-womens-needs-and-leadership-in-covid-19-response

[9] Terminology used by the New Zealand government to describe the people with whom an individual isolates during the lockdown.

[10] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/3/news-womens-needs-and-leadership-in-covid-19-response

[11] https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/what-we-do/media-centre/single-parents-facts-figures/

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/03/feminism-womens-rights-coronavirus-covid19/608302/

[13] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/412635/pregnancy-in-covid-19-lockdown-options-creating-anxiety-for-some-women

[14] http://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20200326-coronavirus-domestic-violence-gender-perspectives

Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

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