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by Tsion Yohannes Waka, Chair, the Center for Gender Equity for the University of Global Health Equity and SOAR Fellow, Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls, and Agnes Binagwaho, Vice Chancellor, University of Global Health Equity

This blog was originally published on Devex on June 19, 2020.

We, as women, might be surprised at this time to see figures that suggest we are less vulnerable to COVID-19 than our male counterparts, with more male deaths reported globally than female. This data fills our screens, via live updates and situation reports. But look closely and you’ll find it is incomplete — and terrifyingly so.

This “silent discriminator” weaves a parallel web of destruction in its economic, political, and social burden on women. The reality is that COVID-19 has aggravated the preexisting inequities that women face in the division of labor, widespread gender-based violence, and hardship roles in front-line health care. While there is some sex-disaggregated data on coronavirus deaths among most-affected countries, there is still lack of sex-disaggregated data to support future interventions that tackle the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it will be the need for a global reevaluation of the division of labor in, and outside, the home. Home isolation has not only increased domestic responsibility but exposed the extent of its burden. School closures mean parents now grapple with home schooling and balance increased household responsibility with formal work. For some, this amounts to losing the benefit of a school-feeding program; replacing the meal at home can have a knock-on effect on a child’s nutrition and economically burden a whole family.

The unequal division of labor extends beyond the home, with the gap becoming more dangerous in the face of a pandemic. According to the International Labour Office, nearly 60% of women on this planet work in the informal economy. These women will typically earn less, have fewer savings to tide over a potential loss of work, and will be less likely to continue work from home. Poverty perpetuates itself, posing a threat to family security and forecasting catastrophic socioeconomic results in the wake of the crisis.

There should also be data to advise how to counter gender-based violence in crisis — after all, it’s not new. When Ebola hit West Africa in 2014, there were casualties beyond those contracting the disease, with widespread outbreaks of sexual assault and GBV that were largely due to national instability and lockdown measures. In its wake, the rate of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone soared by 65% in some communities.

Now, we watch cases of GBV rise according to enforced home isolation. Recent figures show there would be an additional 15 million cases of intimate partner violence in 2020 for an average lockdown duration of 3 months, assuming a 20% increase in such violence. This raises the question: How will we harness these figures to invest more in services that protect victims of GBV in the future?

Will there be resources available when, say, survivors of rape require obstetric care later on? We need more than help lines and online support such as counseling. These, though important, are a privilege to those without phones or internet.

We should also be aware that sex-disaggregated data on the virus we see in our news is skewed. Men might, through sex-based immunological or gendered differences, be more likely to die from the disease, but there’s a difference between mortality and vulnerability. Front-line health workers, on whom many of our health systems rely, are predominantly women — making up 65% of the nursing workforce in Africa — and face disproportionate virus exposure.

It’s not solely the coronavirus-related workforce. Midwives, the majority of whom are female, provide lifesaving support both at home and in hospitals to pregnant women and offer phone-based antenatal and postnatal care. Jeopardizing their safety by limiting personal protective equipment not only devalues their lives and the essential reproductive health services they provide, but also compromises the success of health services at the national level.

If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it will be the need for a global reevaluation of the division of labor in, and outside, the home.

Even amid this crisis, there are still signs that the “shadow” roles of front-line health workers are being undervalued. Where, for instance, are the numbers representing nurses dying from the virus? The International Council of Nurses has reportedly expressed the urgency of addressing the lack of “standardised reporting by countries in relation to health worker infections and deaths.” This is not data for “data’s sake”; it is to acknowledge the “ultimate sacrifice” made by these brave front-line workers and to inform the best policies and practices for prevention to save lives.

If women are disproportionately affected by the virus, they need to be at the center of recovery. Recovery means that if women are household providers, we need to give them the provisions with which to do this effectively or galvanize governments to support a long-term revaluation of labor.

If women are the majority of our front-line health forces, they should have sufficient resources to protect themselves. This also requires adequate female representation within governing bodies and relief organizations and ensuring that the unique community- and household-level insights of front-line health workers are the backbone of health policies.

Academic institutions, civil society, and philanthropic organizations are responsible for examining the data and science behind this pandemic and helping progress the gender equity agenda with attention to the populations most affected, directly or indirectly. The University of Global Health Equity, through its Center for Gender Equity, aims to boost education and research around these issues, and encourage gender analysis of COVID-19’s effects to identify the hidden impacts and inequalities in households and communities.

We provisionally agree with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ statement that “COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights.”

But the pandemic should also be seen as an opportunity — to galvanize overdue changes in female advocacy and gender equity, to disaggregate the overwhelming data so that the unknowns become knowns, and to support the right groups with the right resources to aid a better recovery for all.

Photo credit: UN Women / Pathumporn Thongking / CC BY-NC-ND

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more.

Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.