Gender rights in the time of a pandemic: What has COVID-19 exposed and what has it taught us about the rights of women and children?

Dr Bronwyn Anderson
Dr Bronwyn Anderson

Historically, the rights of women and children have been discounted on a global scale, thus making them vulnerable to various forms of abuse and violence. Statistics from both industrialized and developing countries show that physical and sexual abuse of women and children is the most pervasive, but least recognized human rights abuse in the world. However, women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to domestic violence and gender-based violence, with the perpetrators being predominantly men. Attempts to enforce the rights of women and girl children by the state, civic organisations and feminist movements have proven challenging, largely due to a systemic and a pervasive patriarchal gender order, gender norms and enduring gender inequalities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised renewed concerns about gender violence and inequality. While the home is considered a place where people should feel safe, in reality, it may be one of society’s most violent social institutions. COVID-19 has again exposed the home as a violent space.  Family violence, and physical and sexual abuse are some of the factors that increase women and girls’ vulnerabilities which were exacerbated during the social distancing and lockdown period. It exposed unequal power relations, with women and children living with abusers and not being able to access assistance in a situation of helplessness and hopelessness as their freedom of movement was restricted. According to UNAIDS (2020), the numbers of infections and deaths does not provide a full picture of the pandemic’s vast gendered impact. While the available data suggest that men experience higher rates of COVID-19-related deaths, women and girls are bearing a disproportionate burden of the larger impacts of the pandemic and states’ emergency responses (UNAIDS, 2020). State efforts to reduce COVID-19 transmission, including mobility restrictions, geographical lockdowns and curfews, have impeded women and girls from attending family planning clinics for necessary sexual and reproductive health care, with severe implications for women and girls’ agency. Their ability to protect themselves from abusers was also hindered due to their inability to contact policing systems or seek refuge with family members, friends or safe havens. Thus, COVID-19 did not only present a health issue but impacted on a broader range of human rights and although it affects(ed) all people, it was in an unequal manner. Women and girls, irrespective of race, class and age experienced the greatest impact of the crisis.

COVID-19 has highlighted the stark gender inequalities across societies, with a lack of pandemic preparedness and fragile institutions impacting on women and children in particular. In addition, the closure of schools and Early Childhood Development centres has massively increased child care needs, which has a particularly severe impact on mothers who have had to navigate working remotely while caring for their children and attending to their educational needs, tasks which have typically been absorbed by women. The gendered societal expectations of women’s roles that require them to juggle their careers and motherhood were severely exacerbated by COVID-19 and even as many were retrenched, their unpaid care work increased in the home.

The volatile situation that women and children faced could have been mitigated by hotline communication with service providers such as police, counsellors and trauma centres which victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse could reach out to for help, as physically seeking help was not an option during the lockdown period. Studies have shown that effective and visible policing systems, together with health professionals are essential for screening and responding to violence against women and children during the pandemic (Sanchez et al., 2020).

Anticipation of a third wave begs the question of whether any lessons have been learnt from the effects of lockdown due to COVID-19 and whether any thought has been given to how the safety of women and children will become a priority both during and in the absence of natural disasters. There is a dire need to evaluate the effect of different intervention programmes as the pandemic remains a ubiquitous threat. How will women and children’s rights be protected in the face of a possible third wave of COVID-19 and an imminent lockdown? 

In conclusion, it can be categorically stated that COVID-19 has exposed how women and children’s (particularly girls) rights have been neglected as a result of the state’s inability to focus on its most vulnerable citizens.

Dr Bronwyn Anderson Senior Lecturer in Gender Education School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal.