Before the coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm, society had begun treating women as equals and regarding women’s rights as human rights. Leading up to 2020, male-dominated fields were becoming more equal, illiteracy rates among women and girls were dropping, and marriage rates for girls under 18 were decreasing dramatically. Slowly, young women were climbing out of the age-old well in which they were drowning. However, COVID-19 erupted, halting progress and, in some cases, threatening its complete reversal.
With the pandemic came quarantines, and with quarantines came more domestic responsibilities—mainly for women. A case brief authored by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (also known as UN Women) analyzed women in 38 countries and noted that women were more likely than men to have increased their time doing household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, decorating, and organizing repairs at home. Women also experienced a disproportionate increase in time spent in family care. Their tasks included teaching, playing, and providing emotional support for children, as well as providing the elderly with physical and medical care.
The rising number of women taking more responsibility at home largely stems from changes in unemployment and the job market during the pandemic. Although more men experienced a shift from employment to unemployment as active job seekers, in 2020, a larger number of women dropped out of the workforce altogether to better care for their families and homes. Even in the United States, a country largely considered to be progressive on women’s rights, women lost 156,000 jobs in December 2020 while men gained 16,000, CNN reports.
Additionally, in a majority of cases where a family lost access to childcare due to the pandemic, it was the female parent who decided to forgo employment to stay home. Guidelines to contain the virus have not fully benefitted women and their families. The closing of daycares and schools has limited access to childcare services. Meanwhile, many restaurants and community businesses that supported already struggling families through discounted goods and services have shuttered, and family units that once supported each other remain far apart. Parents, especially mothers, have essentially lost the ‘villages’ that helped them raise their children.
These challenges, however, are not limited to women in the U.S. or other first-world countries. Internationally, 80 percent of domestic workers, or those paid for working in others’ households, are women; 72 percent of these workers have lost jobs due to the pandemic. These job losses caused some women like Durga Devi, a resident of Delhi, India, to suffer major setbacks. Despite her husband retaining his job as a security guard, Devi’s family of five was forced to get by on less food while the quality of their children’s education suffered, as they could not afford to buy a laptop.
Furthermore, the overall employment figures in Delhi, the capital city of India and a major employment hub in the country, follow a similar pattern as those seen in the U.S. According to IndiaSpend, a data-driven news agency, as of August 2020, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for females is 5.5 percent. In the same period, men boasted a rate of 57 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains at 47 percent for women and 21 percent for men.
The massive gender gaps in LFPR and unemployment rates in Delhi are stark examples of the pandemic’s negative impact on women’s financial situations, which affects their ability to thrive independently. Agnes Leina, the founder and Executive Director of I’llaramatak Community Concerns, a resource center offering livelihood options for women in Kenya, explained this phenomenon in an interview with UN Women in 2019. “When you own things, you have power; and when you don’t, you have no voice,” explained Leina. “Economic bondage is demeaning, and by enabling women to make their own money, you give them back their dignity.” Although Leina, herself an indigenous woman from northern Kenya, was interviewed before the pandemic, the implication of her words prevails.
For some women losing a job means forgoing a paycheck and financial independence. For others, however, it means risking their safety and lives. With the pandemic, women in abusive relationships found themselves trapped in inescapable, potentially life-threatening conditions. While both men and women can face domestic violence from their partners, women are more than twice as likely to be the victims, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). As quarantines required families and couples to remain home for days with minimal to no break from one another, women had no escape from their aggressors. In fact, domestic violence hotlines prepared for an increase in calls when quarantine began. However, there was a 50 percent decrease in calls, presumably because of women’s difficulty safely connecting with these kinds of services, reported the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
Facing unemployment and greater financial dependency, women are greater targets of domestic violence. In an abusive relationship, the NEJM explains, “financial entanglement with an abusive partner is too convoluted to serve without an alternative source of economic support.” The loss of financial independence can strike a blow to a woman’s self-esteem and self-assuredness, shrinking the chances of ending the abusive relationship.
The effects of the pandemic go far beyond working-age women in developed countries. Girls as young as ten years old are feeling the pandemic’s dangerous repercussions. In Samburu County, a small village in rural northern Kenya, girls are forced into marriages and genital mutilation procedures with even greater frequency than pre-pandemic times. The New York Times shared the story of Jacinta, a young ten-year-old who was subjected to genital mutilation and early marriage. “I didn’t know they would marry me off,” Jacinta said, until she was subjected to the genital mutilation, which is required for Samburu girls on the cusp of marriage.
Although attempts to curb this abuse in other parts of Africa have been somewhat effective, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic strains have nearly destroyed the last 20 years of progress. Even before the pandemic, families struggling financially would sell their daughters into marriages in exchange for livestock, blankets, food, and cash. The number of young girls like Jacinta subjected to these horrors has only increased in the face of heightened financial struggles caused by widespread job loss and the upheaval of the global economy.
These stories are not unique to a single town, country, or continent. All across Asia, more young girls than ever are being forced out of school and into marriages as a direct result of the pandemic. Although this had been happening before the pandemic, schools often taught young girls family planning skills and provided them with a refuge, all of which the pandemic eroded. This was the case for May, a 15-year-old from the northern Hmong hill tribes in Thailand, who shared her story with Al Jazeera. Like countless others during the pandemic, she was compelled to marry her 25-year-old construction worker boyfriend after getting pregnant. Her parents could not afford to keep her and the baby, so she moved six hours away to her husband’s family farm.
Similarly, Lia, an 18-year-old from the conservative West Sulawesi region in Indonesia, was forced to marry a man three decades older than her after being seen alone with him. Although Lia was able to escape that engagement, she again wound up in a marriage she did not want. This time, she had a child, due in part to the lack of family planning services that she would have received at school. Because her parents were unable to support her and her child, Lia went to live with her husband.
“I used to dream of becoming a flight attendant,” Lia recalled. “But she failed,” her new husband Randi interrupted, “and ended up in the kitchen.”
Michael Broswoski, the founder of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, explained to The Lancet that young girls like Lia and May are often married off “because families may have felt they could no longer afford to feed all the family, and it would be better to let their daughters go and move in with the husband’s family.”
This reasoning often applies in India as well. Rani, a 13-year-old, had successfully escaped the prospect of marriage by attending school. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools closed and Rani’s father, already battling tuberculosis, had to shut his business. The financial strain became so unbearable that he found Rani a man to marry within a month of schools closing. Rani was more than disappointed, saying, “They don’t understand that it is important [for girls] to go to school, start earning, and be independent.”
What is less reassuring is that even when girls reach out for help, they are often unable to access it. Even without the threat of a deadly virus, little can be done to change what is essentially a cultural norm. This issue of child marriage begins as soon as a girl is born. In countries like India, there exists a general sentiment is that girls cost money and are just an extra mouth to feed. Boys, meanwhile, can be educated, earn money, and extend the family lineage. Early marriage is often the simplest way for families to ease the financial burden that additional children add. While the governments of countries like India, Thailand, and Vietnam have laws standardizing marriage age for girls – typically at 18 – it is nearly impossible to enforce such a rule when many marriages are not legally licensed. For many, the cultural ceremonies and proceedings are enough to declare a marriage official, which had long made it harder for governments to enforce such a rule. Before the global pandemic, one of the biggest deterrents to child marriages was home visits by government officials and child protective agencies. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, such inspections are now often delayed or never occur, NPR reports.
Although Lia, May, and Rani were forced into marriages as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, had the pandemic never happened, it is likely that at least one of them would have faced the same outcome. Broadly speaking, COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect women because they, as a whole, earn less, save less, hold more unstable jobs, have less control over their own finances, and live closer to the poverty line than men. All of these factors demonstrate that the economic impact of the pandemic is compounded on women. Understandably, the pandemic was not something society could have predicted, but the injustice it has exposed and exacerbated is something we certainly should have predicted. After all, when the baseline for women is so deeply riddled with inequality, is it any surprise that a virus made things worse?