In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis felt worldwide has not been limited to health. The world economy and social wellbeing of people worldwide have both struggled as billions have been forced to stay home, many of them losing their jobs, and suffering as the stresses of the pandemic build. However, Women’s Rights Activist, African Coordinator of the Global Greens’ Women’s Network, and Executive Director of the Ecological Party of Uganda, Dorothy Nalubega, believes that none have been more impacted by this crisis than women.
Ms. Nalubega provided Global Green News with a research paper she had written, titled “The Effects of COVID-19 on Women”. This essay examines the health, social, and economic impacts that this crisis has placed specifically on women both in her home country of Uganda, and worldwide.
Impact on health
Nalubega starts by stating that while men have been dying at much higher rates from COVID-19 than women, “many of the broader repercussions [of the pandemic] affect women more than men.” Nalubega quotes the United Nations’ Senior Gender Advisor to the Executive Office of the Secretary General, Nahla Valji, stating that “There is no single society where we have achieved equality between men and women, so the pandemic is being layered on to top of existing inequalities and it is exacerbating those inequalities”.
Frontline workers have been put at higher risk than anyone during the crisis, and according to the World Health Organization, women represent 70% of the global health work force, performing roles as both doctors and nurses.
In China, for example, 41,000 health workers were sent from around the country to support medical staff in Hubei – the province of origin of the Coronavirus – among which, 90% of the nurses were women. Within days, 3,387, or 12% of those health workers had become infected; an alarming statistic for frontline workers.
On the local level, Nalubega illustrates the declining health of women in Uganda, especially pregnant women, due to the pandemic.
From March to May 2020, the country had gone into nearly total lockdown, with only food markets and other essential services still active. While this action has been replicated by many countries, the Ugandan Government took it a step further by banning access to public and private transportation, severely hindering their citizens’ means of travel.
Before the ban on transportation was eased in May 2020, people required explicit permission from the Resident District Commissioner in order to use their private motorized transportation. This rule did not have an exception for trips to seek medical care, urgent or not.
As a result, most women had little to no access to health services, including family planning and other maternal health departments. This led to a lack of available contraceptives for couples, resulting in an increase in unplanned pregnancies. The several months without access to these health services meant little assistance for pregnant women, both in the beginning and in the later stages of their pregnancy, putting the health of the woman and the unborn child at risk.
Within the first two weeks of lockdown, at least 7 women were reported to have died during childbirth, followed by another two babies having been stillborn.
Nalubega states firmly that these tragedies could have been prevented had the government accounted for how the severely limited access to legal transportation would affect Ugandan women.
Nalubega includes statements from the United Nations and World Bank, which claim that the gender pay gap is highly vulnerable to increasing due to the pandemic, an issue that would present a significant setback for global gender equality.
According to Nalubega, industries that employ high numbers of women have been the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis. The service industry has been one area that has been significantly negatively impacted by the pandemic, an industry which employs a high number of female employees.
Women also make up large percentages of part-time workers. According to the statistics from the British Government, 40% of working women in the United Kingdom work part-time. Nalubega also states that according to the Fuller Project – an organization reporting on systemic issues impacting women – the number of female unemployment applicants surged in US states such as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Minnesota in March 2020.
Nalubega goes on to state how two working-parent homes with children will be faced with difficult choices, now that schools, and after school programs have been stopped, requiring at least one adult to stay home with the children.
Nalubega quotes Dr. Clare Wenham of the London School of Economics, stating: “It is not just about social norms of women performing care roles, it is also about practicalities.”
Nalubega continues: “Women are more likely to be the lower earners, meaning their jobs are considered a lower priority when it comes to choosing who is to stay at home….This will weaken them financially, politically and socially resulting into gender inequalities.”
The decision to halt the use of public and private transportation in Uganda has also created, what Nalubega refers to as an “Economic depression for women in Uganda.”
Given the halt to motorized transportation, the Ugandan government presented its citizens with three choices in terms of getting to work: walking, biking, or simply staying overnight at the workplace.
Nalubega states that these decisions have yet again not been made with women in mind, as many Ugandan women have children at home, and are the primary caregivers. Nalubega goes on to explain that culturally, Uganda maintains traditional values, with women being expected to be the homemakers; caring for children and general upkeep in the home is done by women, all without the assistance of the male partner.
As women with children (especially small children) would not be able to spend prolonged periods of time away from them, sleeping at their work was not a viable option.
Nalubega also explains that, culturally, many Ugandan women have never been taught how to ride a bicycle, as it can be seen as being ‘uncultured’, thus eliminating the option of using a bicycle to get to and from work.
Naturally, not all women live within walking distance of their work location, thus giving Ugandan women no other alternative but to quit their jobs, creating an economic depression in Uganda that has affected women more severely than any other group.
As worldwide lockdown has kept people indoors, reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed.
Nalubega includes statistics from the United Nations, reporting that domestic violence in France has increased by 30%, Singapore by 33%, Cyprus by 30%, and Argentina by 25%. Countries like Canada, Spain, the UK, the USA and Germany have also reported increases in domestic violence cases, as well as an increase in the demand for women’s shelters, to escape the looming threat of domestic violence.
Single mothers have fared no better during the pandemic. Nalubega states that these women have been split between the working and caring roles for their children, creating a ‘double pandemic’, especially in countries where no welfare nor social assistance can be offered.
Regarding Uganda, Nalubega reiterates that the traditional roles of men being viewed as the ‘breadwinners’ and women as the ‘caregivers’ has both hindered the economic succession of women, and contributed to the rising cases of domestic violence in Ugandan households.
“In African social norms, the gender construct dictates that men are the bread winners, who are supposed to provide for the family…with the lockdown, they feel helpless not being able to provide for their families….This has made them paranoid, which has resulted in tension, and women are the victims.”
According to Nurse Yudaya Nabukalu Nassuna, the health centre in which she works, Namayumba Health Centre IV, receives at least 5 cases of women having been badly beaten by their husbands per day.
According to the Nile Post, by April 17th, 2020, 328 cases of domestic violence were reported in Uganda since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Nalubega concludes her research by giving several possible recommendations for all nations to follow, aimed at reconciling the political, social and economic disempowerment felt by women worldwide amid this pandemic.
- For policy makers: considering different experiences faced by women and men during the pandemic.
- Ensuring that lockdown measures are accompanied by support for affected households.
- Creating a national COVID-19 response that includes listening to women’s voices in the decision-making.
- Developing mitigation strategies that specifically target the economic impact of the outbreak on women.
- Protecting essential health services for women and girls, including sexual and reproductive health services.
- Building and strengthening centres for abused women, as well as increasing punishment for domestic violence perpetrators.
- Supporting programs that build women’s economic resilience for this pandemic.