The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender

Outbreak of diseases and pandemic often have gendered impacts that might go unnoticed in the beginning but can have serious and long lasting consequences. Human Rights Watch has found that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and Zika Virus outbreak in Latin America in 2015-2016 negatively impacted women and girls and reinforced gender inequality. It might be too early to ascertain how deep the impact would be but news reports have suggested that COVID-19 is already, disproportionately affecting women and girls in a number of ways.

Front Line Care Workers:

In an analysis done by WHO in 104 countries, women make up 70% of the workers in the health and social sectors and as they are in the front line of containing the spread of the virus, they may end up being heavily exposed 1. Additionally, a gender pay gap of 28% exists in the health sector which can get exacerbated in a crisis like this. Women may also face stigma because of the fear in communities about the exposure they may face and because of that they might not have equal access to resources whilst trying to protect their and their families’ health2. Therefore, women health workers’ menstrual hygiene needs as well as psychosocial support must be prioritized at this time 3. Additionally, UNFPA believes it will require 187.5$ million to bolster health systems and procure and deliver essential supplies to protect women health workers. In China, Iran and Philippines, it has already distributed essential hygiene and other items 4.

Domestic Violence:

When households are placed under lockdown situations and economic strains and in contexts of family violence, as self-isolation and quarantine are put in practice, such violence tends to increase. COVID-19 is driving similar trends right now as reported by some impacted communities 5.  A women’s non-profit based in Beijing, China reported that the organization had received three times as many inquiries from victims than they did before the quarantines were in place 6.  Similarly, France’s interior minister reported that domestic violence across the country have jumped up by more than 30% since the country has gone under a lockdown on March 17th, 2020 7. Although there is little or no evidence to support this claim, but women in Pakistan fear an increase in domestic violence because men are facing a loss of control and power due to the lockdown in the country 8. Risk to victims has increased because women are confined at homes with their abusive partners.

Burden of Care:

According to ILO, globally women perform 76.2% in total hours of unpaid care work, almost more than three-times as much as men, this figure rises up to 80% in Asia and Pacific 9. Healthcare systems are being stretched all over the world and thus the responsibility of caring for the ill-members and elderly of the family is placed on women and girls as well as assed household tasks which increase as people stay at home during a quarantine. As cities have gone under lockdown, schools have been closed which exacerbates the burden of unpaid care work on women and girls who have to absorb the added responsibility of looking after the children while trying to work from home. In extreme situations, women may have to give up paid work even if it is work from home to take care of their children.

On a lighter note, William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, but maybe that was because none of them had childcare responsibilities. Food for thought?

Longer term economic impact:

Un Women reports that as was seen with the Ebola crisis, the economic impacts of COVID-19 will hit women harder as 740 million women work in informal employment worldwide. The disruption on travel, production and consumption has an impact on many sectors and affects men and women alike, but low-income women are particularly affected because they work in hospitality, retail or other service industries 10. Similarly, in low-income countries, economic crises followed by a pandemic affects women excessively 11. This will further aggravate gender gaps in livelihoods. Women will also be encouraged to take leave from paid work to take on greater unpaid work within the home, their jobs are likely to be disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs, as documented through the Ebola crisis 12.

WHO’s Executive Board has emphasized the need to include women in decision making for outbreak preparedness and response, but we still see an inadequate representation of women in national and global COVID-19 policy space such as the White House Coronavirus Task Force 13. The Ebola outbreak and the Zika Virus epidemic has provided us with critical gendered socioeconomic lessons. Women in these outbreaks were exposed to economic and health risks both, just like they are now, in ways that are intrinsically connected to their roles in the community and as caregivers within the home and family. It is imperative that governments all over the world and the private sector include a gender inclusion lens in risk communication so as to minimize further marginalization of women. By understanding these issues and keeping them in the front light, we can support those most vulnerable in emergencies by giving them the priority assistance that they need and also engage them in important decision making processes. This will ensure that their input is included in analysis of response, recovery, preparedness and risk. If we fail to take these steps, the results will come with a great cost and one that will primarily have to be borne by women.

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