State measures to address COVID-19 must be gender responsive

A Feature Article by the Access to Justice for Women Team of the ICJ.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, many governments are introducing a spectrum of measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including travel bans, lockdowns, curfews, and school, workplace and border closures.

While it is important that States act decisively in discharge of their obligations to protect the rights to life and health of all people during this pandemic, it is equal that they do so in a human rights compliant manner, so as not to compound the harms brought directly by the virus.

This entails, among other things, acting in a manner that provides equal protection and is non-discriminatory.  Complying with these principles requires taking into account gender impacts and providing for gender-specific responses.

However, a number of measures presently being taken by governments around the world to attempt to curb the spread of the virus can be expected to exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and therefore disproportionately affect women’s enjoyment of social and economic rights.

Many women who are disabled, refugees, migrants, detainees, living in poverty and or belonging to ethnic, racial, religious or sexual minority groups are experiencing or are likely to experience intersecting forms of discrimination during this time of crisis.

What Does #StayHome Mean to Women?

Lockdowns, quarantines, and school closures to control the pandemic in many countries have a differential effect on women.

Women and girls are most expected to perform caregiving role within families, which means less economic and work opportunities for them and thus denying their basic rights to development.

This condition is worsened if they are being quarantined with an abusive partner as they are exposed to greater risks of intimate partner violence during the outbreak.

Unfortunately, in many places there is a significant lack of guidelines or information on how to contact police, access medical treatment, psychological support, or access to shelters when domestic violence occurs during the pandemic.

In the UK, for example, while 25 organizations helping domestic violence victims have reported an increase in their cases since the surge of the COVID-19 epidemic, one quarter said they could not effectively support victims because of technical issues, inability to meet victims, and staff sickness.

Additionally, with resources already stretched in fighting the spread of the virus, many State authorities may not see as a priority access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services for women, which are already restricted by prohibitive laws and customs in many contexts.

This results in significant limitations on women’s rights to menstrual health, maternal health, and safe abortion.

Women at Work

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), women are over-represented in more affected sectors (such as services) or in occupations that are at the frontline of dealing with the pandemic.

The ILO estimates that 58.6 percent of employed women work in the services sector around the world. Women also have less access to social protection and will bear a disproportionate burden in the care economy, in the case of closure of schools or care systems.

Women migrant workers are also vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, as extensive travel restrictions constrain both their ability to access their places of work in destination countries and return to their families.

Women at the Border: Refugees & Asylum seekers

There is a severe lack of secure, safe and accessible infrastructure and services in most refugee camps and temporary settlements.

Asylum seekers face right now a long wait if the courts are closed due to the pandemic, or worse, being returned to their home country without having a chance to pursue their claims, sometimes in violation of the principle of non refoulement.

As the virus hits overcrowded displacement sites, the consequences can expected be catastrophic.  Moreover, in this setting, studies found that women and girls are often exposed to sexual violence and exploitation when they are forced to openly defecate or walk to shared sanitation facilities.

All State Measures to COVID-19 Must Be Gender Responsive

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), States have duty to achieve the full realization of the right to everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also provides of the obligation of States to take all appropriate measure to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.

Furthermore, failure to recognize the gender dynamics of outbreaks limits the effectiveness of response efforts and consequently impedes women’s rights.

In order for the response to disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 to be effective and not reproduce or perpetuate gender and health inequities, it is important that gender norms and roles are identified and incorporated in all socio- economic measures established to counter the pandemic.

Further, the emergency preparedness and response plan must address   gender roles, responsibilities, social norms and specific needs of women.

States should also provide new strategies for women victims of domestic violence to be protected during the lockdown.

Governments should include the work of domestic violence professionals an essential service and provide emergency resources for anti-domestic abuse organizations to help them respond to increased demand for services.

They should also consider, alternative means, such as through “pop-up” counseling centers, reporting in pharmacies, to encourage women to report domestic violence.

Governments must ensure all measures to combat the outbreak are gender responsive while being in strict accordance with human rights standards.

While states may limit or derogate from certain rights to meet a public health crisis, such restrictions are always subject to the principles of legality, necessity proportionality and nondiscrimination.

Given that women are often to be found in the more vulnerable categories of informal work, for instance, as domestic workers or self-employed home-based workers, authorities should enhance universal access to collectively-financed health services for all, including uninsured workers and their families.

States must also expand access to collectively-financed paid sick leave, sickness benefits, and parental or care leave to ensure income security for those who are sick, quarantined or caring for children, elderly or other family members.

Moreover, governments should ensure that women asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and refugees are included in national COVID-19 surveillance, preparedness, and response plans, and ensure that menstrual hygiene, reproductive, and other primary health care commodities are well-stocked and available.

Lastly, perspectives, experiences, and voices of diverse women, including LBTI persons (as enshrined in the Yogyakarta Principles), should be included in decision-making process around the COVID-19 outbreak measures because effective global responses, to public health emergencies must be in line with the rights and needs of affected women.


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