08 Mar Why gender matters in the COVID-19 response
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a variety of biological, social and economic impacts. However, it is not impacting everyone equally. Today, on International Women’s Day, we want to shed light on the concept of gender and the experiences of women during disasters such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Gender and gender differences are one of the main structuring principles of our society. But what is gender? For a better understanding of this discussion, we have to take a step back and differentiate between two key terms: first, the biological sex of a person and second, their socially constructed gender. Biological sex is generally a term to describe the biological and physiological characteristics of female and male bodies. However, it is important to note that this binary distinction does not represent biological diversity in relation to transgender or other identity groups. Gender refers to the cultural articulation of female and male differences, in all matters of social life. These articulations vary strongly in each culture. ‘Gender, the ways in which individuals are expected to be women and men, is socially and culturally constructed’. That gender is socially constructed is nowadays widely accepted; particularly within the social sciences. More so, latest studies conducted in the field of neuroscience present strong evidence that there are no fundamental differences between female and male brains. However, their relative status and roles in society varies strongly.
A defining factor in society – and for the COVINFORM project
Scholars argue that gender is not only socially constructed but is also an imposed division of the sexes which goes hand in hand with power differences between women and men, organising the social lives of people. It is important to keep in mind that this is not referring to individual women or men. Rather, it is referring to women and men as social groups. In recent decades, gender became a crucial analytical category within the social sciences. This is because historically the experiences of women and their particular struggles arising from their position within society were often ignored in academic discourses. However, social positions of individuals are not only structured by gender but also by race, ethnicity, age, class, socio-economic status, sexuality, and so on. For this reason, the concept of intersectionality is of great value for the COVINFORM project.
Kimberlé Crenshaw (1982) most famously coined the term intersectionality, arguing that categories such as race and gender are mutually constitutive and cannot be thought of as additive. By this, Crenshaw means that the experience of people who are affected by multiple forms of oppression is not adequately understood if it is simply framed as, for example, just the experience of racism and sexism. Gender and race intersect with each other and create a specific form of racism, a gendered racism, that cannot be understood by framing them as two separate phenomena a person is simultaneously experiencing. For example, a white woman is in a more powerful position than a black man when it comes to her racial privilege. A man with a working-class background will be in a more powerful position in the labour market than a working-class woman due to his gender.
The COVINFORM project aims to understand the impact of COVID-19 response on societies and different social groups, gender and the way in which it structures societies is one of the key categories of analysis. In COVINFORM, we follow an intersectional approach, appreciating the interconnectedness of social categories. The project analyses and critiques pandemic responses. We examine if these responses create new or increase existing vulnerabilities, or impact the mental and/or physical health of community members. Gender can, and has, resulted in inequalities and vulnerabilities in the context of disasters, and in particular in relation to the impact of COVID-19 – in the sections below, we outline how.
What can we learn from research on gender and disasters?
Disasters do not impact everyone equally. Even prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, research has examined the influence that gender has in relation to risk perception and disaster preparedness, response and recovery. While there are inconsistent findings in relation to how gender influences perceptions of risk, studies have highlighted the differential impacts that disasters have had based on gender. The social and structural inequalities that have been highlighted as making women more vulnerable to the negative impacts of disasters include: women having higher rates of poverty which result in women living in higher-risk homes (e.g., trailer homes) or living near hazardous facilities, having inadequate access to proper nutrition and health, and having the role of primary unpaid care-giver. For example, during the 2004 tsunami, in some Sri Lankan villages women were three times more likely than men to die. It was a result of factors including “gendered skill sets and consequent gendered division of labor in local economies, physical location at the time of the tsunami, caregiving roles, and traditional dress that limited mobility”. It is not only the direct effect of the disasters that results in harm – studies have highlighted how domestic violence can increase significantly following a disaster.
An intersectional approach is also adopted in the disaster management field to understand how different vulnerabilities (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, health status) combine to create overlapping discrimination or disadvantage which can increase vulnerability. Studies have highlighted how in disaster settings, ethnic minority women can have less access to services and resources as a result of social inequalities including institutional racism, language barriers and distrust of government authorities.
It is important to note that gender is not binary and limited to the categories of being male or female. Multiple genders and sexualities exist with different needs to be considered before, during and following a disaster. Gaillard, Gorman-Murray and Fordham highlight how following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a transgender evacuee was jailed solely because she showered in the female bathroom of a shelter and some of the other evacuees and the authorities mistakenly believed that she was a man. Not considering diversity of needs of all genders can result in policy and plans that exclude and discriminate against different groups.
Research on the gendered impacts of disasters highlights the multiple gender-related issues and considerations to be factored into the development of disaster management plans and policies. Below we outline some of the non-biological gendered impacts of COVID-19.
The gendered impact of COVID-19
The ongoing gendered impact of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the critical need for consideration of gender differences in disaster planning and policy. The current pandemic has both reinforced gender inequalities, as well as highlighted differences in the biological impacts on men and women. Examples for the latter would be the severity and mortality rate of COVID-19 infections of male and female patients. A study conducted by Jin et al. found that the number of men who died from COVID-19 was 2.4 times higher than that of women. Biological differences may also influence responses to the virus, vaccination and therapy.
First, we want to draw attention to gender-specific risk factors connected to employment. While men and women working in the healthcare sector are equally exposed to the virus, women make up the majority (76%) of healthcare workers in the EU. Adopting an intersectionality lens, highlights that it is Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women and migrant women who are overrepresented in the health and social care sectors. The care sector, where physical distancing is often not possible, is highly affected by the pandemic. Here, women make up 93% of child care workers and teachers’ aides, 86% of personal care workers in health services, and 95% of domestic cleaners and helpers. Women also provide the majority of (unpaid) caring duties in families and immediate communities, which has increased during the pandemic in many countries due to measures such as home schooling. Other essential and predominantly female jobs requiring contact and increased exposure include supermarket cashiers, cleaning personnel and janitorial staff. As such, a gendered segregation in the labour market leads to different levels of exposure to the virus.
Women are also affected by the pandemics’ gendered economic impact: women are more often in temporary, part-time and precarious employment than men. It corresponds to lower pay, weaker legal protection, and difficulties accessing social protection. This particularly affects younger women, as well as women with lower qualifications, and female migrants, who are already at greater risk of poverty.
Another aspect of the gendered impact of the pandemic is the domestic violence. The WHO reports that certain types of violence are likely to increase after (or during) a disaster, such as child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, and (sexual) exploitation. An Australian study investigating the increase of violence against women in the aftermath of the bushfires of 2009 found that there were increases in domestic violence including new incidents of domestic violence. In the context of COVID-19, measures such as isolation and quarantine can lead to longer exposure to abusers, as well as cutting victims off from social and institutional support. While it is important to acknowledge that domestic violence happens to people of all genders, women are disproportionately affected. As early into the pandemic as April 2020, the BBC reported that calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline in the UK had seen an increase by 25%. Similar trends could be observed in the USA with an increase between 10-30%.
These are only a few of the gender-based impacts and considerations being highlighted by COVID-19. We can see that individuals may be impacted in diverse ways depending on a range of characteristics and identity categories. When we define people as falling within a particular social group (often a binary one), are we missing important factors that differentiate between them? It is important that planning and policy rethinks the oversimplified ways we tend to label people and identifies appropriate ways to measure these diverse impacts and vulnerabilities.
Research undertaken as part of the COVINFORM project will examine these impacts and vulnerabilities, and develop solutions, guidance and recommendations to ensure that the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups are appropriately considered in COVID-19 responses and future pandemics.
Authors: Su Anson, Viktoria Adler, Diotima Bertel & Maureen Fordham
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