Zonta responds to the COVID-19 pandemic

While everyone around the world is affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is causing particularly devastating consequences for women and girls.

“Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex,” The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, a United Nations policy brief states.

Economic impacts are felt especially by women, who generally earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs and are more likely to work in the informal sector.

As women often take on greater care demands at home, their jobs will be disproportionately affected by cuts and layoffs. They have less access to social protections and lead most single-parent households.

The situation is even more dire in developing economies, where 70% of women are employed in the informal sector with few protections against dismissal or paid sick leave.

“The COVID-19 global crisis has made starkly visible the fact that the world’s formal economies and the maintenance of our daily lives are built on the invisible and unpaid labor of women and girls,” the UN policy brief says.

With 1.52 billion students out of school and an increased healthcare burden on families, demands for unpaid care work have dramatically increased. Before COVID-19, women were doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. That number has undoubtedly increased.

Though early reports indicate that more men are dying from COVID-19 than women, women’s health is typically impacted when resources and priorities, including sexual and reproductive health services, are reallocated.

Women and girls have unique health needs, but they are less likely to have access to health services and adequate insurance, especially in rural and marginalized communities.

Additionally, women may be more at risk of exposure due to occupational sex-segregation. According to a report from the World Health Organization, women are 70% of the world’s health workforce and are more likely to be on the front lines, especially as nurses, midwives and community health workers. They are also a majority of health facility service staff, including cleaners, laundry and catering.

Violence against women and girls is also increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, 243 million women and girls aged 15-49 have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. A UN Women brief says that number is likely to surge as social and economic stresses combine with measures to restrict movement and outside contact.

Comprehensive data is not yet available, but there are already troubling reports of heightened gender-based violence around the world. In countries with reporting systems in place, increases of more than 25% are being reported.

While it is too early to tell whether child marriage will increase as a result of this crisis, UNICEF is anticipating challenges and working with other agencies to address issues as they relate to the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage, which Zonta International is supporting.

Girls not in school are at greater risk of child marriage. If they are away from school too long, they may not return. Nankali Maksud, senior advisor for harmful practices at UNICEF and coordinator of the Global Programme to End Child Marriage, shared on a recent Zonta/UNICEF USA webinar that the agency is looking into other methods of education, such as online materials or shipping textbooks, so girls do not lose out on education. For its Let Us Learn project in Madagascar, Zonta has redirected a portion of its funding to be used for printing and distributing learning materials to approximately 45,000 children for independent learning while schools remain closed and for a “Back-to-school” campaign targeting all 60,000 primary and lower secondary schools in the country.

Widespread income loss and economic insecurity among families are also factors that are likely to increase rates of child marriage. UNICEF is looking into how to best deal with issues such as less access to social services and protection, poverty, food, water and sanitation resources.

In Jordan, where Zonta supports the UN Women Eid bi Eid project, women refugees at the Za’atari Camp learned how to make soap to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Vulnerable women enrolled in the program’s Oasis Centers are continuing to receive cash transfers in compliance with public health and safety regulations.

While we try to mitigate the immediate consequences of COVID-19, as Zontians, we must think farther ahead and continue our advocacy efforts. Governments are under significant pressure right now, so it is crucial for us to keep up the momentum and advocate so that measures to fight child marriage and violence against women are not forgotten.

Now, more than ever, we must work toward gender equality. In addition to all the facts and risks cited above, we can also see the potential to lose ground in our efforts reflected in the lack of female faces amongst politicians, health experts and economists discussing this global crisis. It is vital that women have a seat at the table, and that their voices are included in recovery initiatives across all sectors of society.

How are you continuing to advocate for women and girls during these challenging times? Share your story or email [email protected].